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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Biblical Limericks: This Was the Only Time He Ever Looked Down on Anyone

He had to act fast, needed a plan,
so to a sycamore tree he ran;
though a bit unseemly
‘twas needful, for you see,
Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

Luke 19: 1- 10

Inside the Mark Twain Cave

Last weekend I took my family down to St. Louis to visit some friends of ours.  On the way we stopped in Hannibal, Missouri.  We stopped there earlier in the summer to visit the Cameron Cave. This time we went through Mark Twain Cave - the one he described in his novel Tom Sawyer.

I took a number of pictures during the tour.  These are a couple of my favorite.

The bandit, Jesse James, along with his gang once hid from the authorities in this cave.  Jesse even wrote his name on one of the cave walls (as many of the caves visitors did over the years), but in order to preserve his signature, that section of the cave isn't accessible by visitors anymore.

Jesse James Hideout (Mark Twain Cave) by Jeff Carter on

Jesse James Hideout (Mark Twain Cave) by Jeff Carter

Inside Mark Twain Cave by Jeff Carter on
Inside Mark Twain Cave by Jeff Carter

Snakes and Lizards and Other Things that Go Bump in the Night -A Halloween Playlist

I know that not all of my coreligionists appreciate All Hallow's Eve, but I do.  I like it.  I like the costumes.  I like the monsters.  I like the scary movies.  And I like the music.  So here are a few songs - a soundtrack for fright night, a Halloween playlist.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Some Wee Little Thoughts on that Famous Short Guy

I'm reading today about Zacchaeus in preparation for preaching on Sunday.  Coming at a story like this one is difficult because of all the baggage that we bring to story, even before we’ve begun to read it.  We’re infected by the Sunday School chorus about a “wee little man” who  goes home to have tea with Jesus, and with countless sermons and devotional writings about his conversion.

But I try to come to it as naively as I can… purposefully looking for ways to shake up my preconceptions.  And I’ve found a couple -not that I’m claiming to have found anything original- but I’ve found new ways to read the story that have provoked me a little.

The story begins (Luke 19: 1 – 10) as Jesus has entered and is passing through Jericho - or in some translations, already passed through Jericho – either way.  It doesn’t seem like he’s planning to spend very long there.  This is a little strange in that Jesus is taking forever with this trip.  He started way back in chapter 9 (9:51).  Now that he’s almost arrived he seems to be in a little bit of hurry. Perhaps he’s realized that he’s just about out of time.

Zacchaeus (whose name means “pure” or “clean” or even “righteous”) was a “chief tax collector” – the Greek word for this position architelones  is not used anywhere else in the bible, neither does it seem to have been used elsewhere in Greek writing up to that time.  Many scholars suggest that it might be better to think of Zacchaeus as a “toll collector.” Stationed in Jericho he was in place to collect the tolls on goods and merchandise being transported along a major trade route.  Merchants transporting goods from Arabia and from East of the Jordan River, as well as those exporting expensive balsams from Jericho to other parts of the world would have to pay a toll before the goods could move past his booth.

And he was rich.  Neither the rich nor the tax (or toll) collectors have fared well under Luke’s pen – but look back to chapter 18 for some immediate context that should influence our understanding of Zacchaeus.  In the parable related in 18: 9 – 14 it is the tax (or toll) collector who is vindicated by God (but perhaps that’s because the only people worse than tax collectors, in Luke’s view, were the Pharisees…).  The rich also don’t get a lot of good press from Luke.  In 18: 18 – 30 the “rich young ruler” comes to Jesus for advice, but goes away dejected because “he was very rich,” prompting the disciples to ask “who then can be saved?” Both of these should be held in mind as we think about Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector.

And he was short.  Maybe.  According to the story we all know, Zacchaeus was short, “wee” even, so short that he couldn’t see Jesus through the crowd.  But some[i] have pointed out that the Greek “he was short” is a little ambiguous.  The “he” could be applied just as easily to Jesus as to Zacchaeus.  I don’t know Greek well enough to make comment here.  But I like the idea of Jesus being “short of stature.”  We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of Jesus with clear skin, perfect teeth, clean hair, and tall.  But why?  Why do all our visual representations of Jesus make him handsome and attractive?  Do we disregard the gospel writers’ application of Isaiah 53: 2 to Jesus? He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

So let’s go with the short Jesus.  And while we’re at it – short, fat, Jesus with bad teeth (missing teeth!)[ii]

So Zacchaeus climbs the tree, Jesus calls him out, and then says “I must stay at your house.”  I love this. Jesus , who at the beginning of this story seemed in a bit of a hurry, proceeding right through Jericho without lingering (he’s already lingered enough in this 10 chapter trip to Jerusalem), now changes his plans.  “I must stay at your place.”  Must.  This is the providential, serendipitous will of God; Jesus alters his plans to do what must be done.  And Zacchaeus received him joyfully.

But not everyone was so happy.  “They” saw it, and “they all” complained.  Who are “they” and why are “they” always so persnickety? “They” complained that Jesus was going off to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.

Then Zacchaeus said to Jesus, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by fraud I restore it four fold.”  We’ve been used to reading this as evidence of his conversion.  But notice:  he hasn’t said, “I will give.”  He uses the present tense. “I give…”  It sounds like he is defending himself against the accusations of “They.” Maybe he was as clean as his name suggests... The evidence of his salvation isn’t in his sudden willingness to give away his money (though that is good) but in his willingness to see Jesus – and to be seen by Jesus.

There is a lot of “seeing” in this short story. Notice the repeated use of “Behold” “Look” “See” “Saw.”

These are a few wee little thoughts about that famous short man (or the other one) that may help us to see this story in a new way.

[i] WhoWill Be Saved? By William H. Willimon
or Who Then Can Be Saved? This Guy!  - Mark Davis

[ii] Even if the “he” of this verse does belong to Zacchaeus (and it probably does), Jesus was, in all probability, not much taller than 5’, short by today’s standards… 

Foggy October Morning

October Morning by Jeff Carter on
October Morning by Jeff Carter

The Secrets of the Alchemical Architecture of the Temple Mount

I was going through one of Dr. Tarrec's steamer trunks today, sorting through the various bits and scraps of his unpublished writing and journals. Amongst his papers I found this tantalizing fragment of a (presumably) lengthier work analysing the alchemical mysteries prophetically embedded in the architecture of the various buildings of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  His papers are not arranged in any systematized order, and there are thousands of pages (not counting the notes of assorted sizes, hastily written on the back of business cards, napkins, and receipts).  I am trying to put them into a coherent order, but the project will probably take me the rest of my life.  When (if) I find more of this particular work, I will publish it here. - thatjeffcarter

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Psyche Doth Magnify the Lord

This is Psyche.  She is my brother's Great Dane, but she lives with us.  My brother and his wife are currently in Barcelona, Spain, but they've been bouncing around the world for some time now.  Psyche came to live with us when they set off globe trotting.

I took these photos in the back yard this afternoon.  Psyche isn't a very willing subject.  She may glorify the Lord (Luke 1:46) , but she doesn't like to sit in one pose for very long.

Psyche Doth Magnify the Lord - 2 by Jeff Carter on

Psyche Doth Magnify the Lord - 2 by Jeff Carter

Psyche Doth Magnify the Lord - 1 by Jeff Carter on

Psyche Doth Magnify the Lord - 1 by Jeff Carter

Monday, October 28, 2013

Biblical Limericks: Stop Saying Revelations!

To avoid the scholar’s damnation
when making a bible citation,
it’s important to note
when copying your quote,
there is only one Revelation.

Gotta’ Serve Somebody: A Gospel (music) Version of the Gospel According to Bob Dylan

I’ve been in a Bob Dylan sort of mood for the past couple of weeks – much to my wife’s displeasure.  She doesn’t care for old Robert Zimmerman.  I’ve been listening to my Dylan CDs as I drive and the larger collection of his music available via the internets as I work at my computer.  One of the disks that I’ve been listening to is Gotta’ Serve Somebody: the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.  My friend Scott gave it to me a few years ago.  Now, Gospel music isn’t my favorite (and I especially can’t stand Southern Gospel.  I once had someone ask me in all seriousness how I could be a pastor and not like Southern Gospel music….) but for Dylan I can make an exception.

Gotta’ Serve Somebody (2003) includes covers of some of Dylan’s songs from his “born again period,” 1979 – 1981 – tracks from his albums Slow Train Coming and Saved but not from his third album during this period, Shot of Love

I like the album – though I don’t listen to it as often as I do Dylan’s other work.  I like the album, but I’m a little disappointed that the producers chose to limit themselves and the artists to Bob’s explicitly Christian albums, because, honestly… these were not Bob’s best works.  There are some good bits, sure, but overall, Bob’s “Christian” albums were weak – musically and lyrically. 

If I had been the producer of Gotta’ Serve Somebody I would have included gospel versions of songs like A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall or When the Ship Comes In.  Or how about a gospel cover of Shelter From the Storm.  These songs may not be as evangelically explicit as songs like Gotta Serve Somebody or When You Gonna Wake Up but there’s still a gospel quality to them. 

A Day with the Arts and with Friends

Over this past weekend my family went down to St. Louis, MO to visit some of our very favorite people.  On Saturday we all went to the SLAM - the St. Louis Art Museum - and spent the morning looking at various works of art.  I was very pleased to see so many of my personal favorites by Max Ernst, and Joseph Cornell and Max Beckmann.  the SLAM has quite a few by Beckmann - including this painting of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery, and this one of Adam and Eve and the Tree by Marc Chagall

Caroline at the museum photo caroline_zpsf622bb38.jpg
I took several photos of my friends' daughter, as my own daughter glares and pouts when I try to take her picture.  This is Caroline at the museum.  And so is this.

After we left the museum (reluctantly on my part.  I would have been quite willing to ignore lunch and spend several more hours there...) we went for a late lunch / early dinner at Ranoush - a middle-eastern restaurant.

Following that, as we walked back to our van we passed by a "poet for hire" He had his typewriter with him there on the sidewalk - and with $3.00, the phrase "mediterranean lunch" and fifteen minutes he composed the following poem for us.
poet for hire photo IMG_7160_zpsbe46a807.jpg

Our plan for the rest of the evening originally included a trip to a pumpkin patch /corn maze, but the day was already growing long and the littlest one among us was getting tired, so we we went home and played card games and wii mini golf.

Few days are this terrific.  Few friends are this wonderful.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Colors with Caroline

This is my friend, Caroline.  She's a bit of ham.

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone -2013 - Week 45

Here it is again, another free background image for you to use - in Powerpoint (or similar presentation programs) or for any other purpose you might imagine.  Use them at home, work, school, church, at the bus station, in the outfield, at the bar, on a train, in the rain, with a fox (Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!) I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

I'm always glad to hear from people who've found them useful in some way.  If you like these, drop a comment below and let me know what you think, what you like....

For those who may be interested in such details - this image is created from a photograph I took over the weekend at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Week 45 photo week45_zpse2f95a67.jpg

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mark Driscoll Is the New Pat Roberson

For 47 years Pat Robertson has been the voice of spiritual wisdom on the 700 Club, but a number of health issues have plagued Robertson for the past several years and now he is preparing to pass the mantle of his authority to someone new.

“God spoke to me,” said the Robertson as his head bobbed back and forth, “and told me, actually spoke to me and said that the time is coming soon when I will have to turn over the reins, and I wasn’t too happy about it.”

“Did he tell you who your replacement would be?” asked his co-host Terry Meeuwsen.

“Well, he did,” said Pat.  “And I’m pleased to welcome the new face of the 700 Club, my good friend Mark Driscoll.  From this point forward, for the next 47, 57, 67 years, I don’t know, he’ll be the one to make misogynistic comments, and failed predictions about the outcome of elections in my place.  He’ll be the one to pray away storms and hurricanes, or to blame gays, liberals, and Muslims if hurricanes make landfall.”

Mark Driscoll shook his head and said, “I’ll do my best to carry on Pat’s legacy of ignorance and hate.  I’ll continue to encourage fat housewives to drop a few pounds and to put on make up to please their husbands. I’ll continue to lash out at various political figures and to call for their assassinations. 

Driscoll smiled and then flexed his arms to show his muscles and said, “I’ve already started including Pat’s Age-Defying Protein Pancakes in my diet.  I can already lift more, and feel healthier than I have in years.”

God's Voice / Satan's Voice

I saw this picture being circulated on FB earlier today.  And while I don’t necessarily disagree with what I believe is the intent of this meme, I’m not entirely sure I agree with it. 

The implied binary division (God’s Voice / Satan’s Voice – Black / White – Good / Bad) doesn’t really hold up.  There are plenty of biblical verses and stories to demonstrate that those attributes assigned to Satan’s voice in this picture can also be attributed to God / Jesus / Holy Spirit.  I do not mean by this that I think God is Satan or that God is evil… just that memes like this are overly simplistic, not completely accurate, and not entirely helpful.

God's Voice:
Rushes you “Jesus told him, "What you are about to do, do quickly." John 13: 27
Pushes you - “At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild.” Mark 12: 22
Frightens you – “He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid…” Genesis 3:10
Confuses you – “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language…” Genesis 11: 7
Discourages you – “But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged…” Job 4: 7
Worries you – “Everywhere you go, God-sent fear and trembling will precede you…” Deuteronomy 11: 22
Obsesses you – “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” Jeremiah 20:9
Condemns you – “The one whom God condemns shall…” Exodus 22: 9

The Shining – Making Disappointing Changes to the Story

Stephen King never really liked Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining.  Though King said it was an inarguably brilliant film, he still described it as “maddening, perverse, and disappointing (King, 214).[i]” And with good reason.  Kubrick’s film took King’s basic story (creepy hotel, isolated family, horror, madness, murder) and made something altogether very different than the story that King wrote.

The differences between their two works are really quite interesting.  Stephen King is an emotional writer –he writes with pathos, he wants his readers to feel with and for his characters.  Stanley Kubrick’s films are emotionally detached – almost clinical.  King wrote about supernatural horrors that began to affect the psychological state of the family.  Kubrick, skeptical about all things supernatural, made The Shining into a psychological horror story (with a few ambiguous elements of supernatural activity). 

Some of the changes Kubrick made to King’s story were done for practical reasons – the topiary creatures that menace the family in King’s novel, for instance, were replaced by an enormous hedge maze in the film.  The limits of the special effects industry in 1980 made the change necessary; there was no good way to make the topiary creatures look frightening and realistic.  But the change that Kubrick made, again, reflects the differences between the two artists.  Monster topiary animals that come to life are a supernatural horror appropriate to King.  The hedge maze that Kubrick substituted is symbol of that twisted mind that is lost and unable to escape from the mental maze of insanity. 
Both are powerful work, different as they are.  Both are frightening – though for different reasons and in different ways.

And here I make a left turn from the thousands and thousands of essays, books, and blogs that have been written about The Shining (in any of its various incarnations – Novel, Movie, Television Miniseries) to wonder if the Gospel writer Mark would have felt something similar to Stephen King’s disappointment had he seen (if he saw) the versions of the gospel story produced by Matthew or Luke.  Would he have been disgusted by the changes made to his artistic work by these later authors?

Just something I thought about as I watched The Shining again. 
You might also want to look into Room 237.

Other Monster Movies in October this year:

[i] King, Stephen Danse Macabre Berkley Publishing Group, New York, NY, 1981. 

Is it Marx or Booth?

I’ve been fielding some complaints recently from members of my denomination (The Salvation Army) that I am too liberal, that I am a Socialist, that I am a Marxist etc.  I’ll admit that I am somewhat liberal in my political and theological views (more than some, less than others), and I will wear the label “Socialist” with pride – though I don’t think of myself as a Marxist (unless you mean Groucho, Harpo, and Chico).

But I propose a little test.  Tell me, of the quotations below, which came from William Booth – founder and first General of The Salvation Army – and which came from Karl Marx.

“Legally the State accepts the responsibility of providing food and shelter for every man, woman, or child who is utterly destitute.  This responsibility it, however, practically shirks by the imposition of conditions on the claimants of relief that are hateful and repulsive, if not impossible”.[i]

“But what is the use of preaching the Gospel to men whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?  You might as well give a tract to a shipwrecked sailor who is battling against the surf which has drowned his comrades and threatens to drown him.  He will not listen to you.  Nay, he cannot hear you any more than a man whose head is under water can listen to a sermon.” [ii]

“If anyone asked me to state in one word what seemed likely to be the key of the solution of the Social Problem I should answer unhesitatingly Co-operation.  It being always understood that it is Co-operation conducted on righteous principles, and for wise and benevolent ends; otherwise Association cannot be expect to bear any more profitable fruit than Individualism.  Co-operation is applied association – association for the purpose of production and distribution.  Co-operation implies the voluntary combination of individuals to the attaining of an object by mutual help, mutual counsel, and mutual effort.” [iii]

“It is inconvenient for ministers or responsible church-wardens or deacons to ask how Mr. Moneymaker gets the golden sovereigns or crisp notes which look so well in the collection.  He may be the most ‘accursed sweater’ who ever waxed fat on that murderous cheap needlework system which is slowly destroying the bodies and ruining the souls of thousands of poor women, both in this and other civilized countries. He may keep scores of employees standing wearily sixteen hours per day behind the counter, across which they dare not speak the truth, and on salaries so small that all hope of marriage or home is denied to them.  Or he may trade in some damning thing which robs men of all that is good in this world and all hope for the next, such as opium or intoxicating drinks; but if you were simple enough to suppose that modern Christianity would object to him on account of any of these things – how respectable Christians would open their eyes, and, in fact, suspect that you had recently made your escape from some lunatic asylum.”[iv]

“Of the schemes of those who propose to bring in a new heaven and a new earth by a more scientific distribution of the pieces of gold and silver in the trouser pockets of mankind, I need not say anything here.  They may be good or they may not.  I say nothing against any short cut to the Millennium that is compatible with the Ten Commandments. I intensely sympathize with the aspirations that lie behind all these Socialist dreams.  … What these good people want to do, I also want to do.” [v]

If I am a Socialist (and I am) it’s not because I’ve read Marx; I came to it through the gospels and through General William Booth. 

[i] William Booth – In Darkest England and the Way Out– pg. 75
[ii] William Booth – Darkest England – pg. 53
[iii] William Booth – Darkest  England – pg. 237
[iv]  All right – this one is actually Catherine Booth, William’s wife – quoted in The Life of Catherin Booth: the Mother of the Salvation Army  -(1912) Vol. 1 page 288
[v]  William Booth – Darkest England  - pg. 87

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Eating the Hand of Buddha - I am Cthulhu

I've mentioned before on this blog that my son and I (and sometimes my daughter too) like to try new and exotic (and some would say weird) foods.  Our newest taste experience was a Buddha's Hand fruit.

They're a citrus.  It's all pretty much rind - tastes a lot like lemon peel - though the interior section is a bit sweeter.  It also left my lips feeling tingly...

 photo BuddhaHand_zps22690d35.jpg

I think the tingly sensation should have been a clue. I'm afraid that I'm turning into Cthulhu.
Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!

I am Cthulhu photo IamCthulhu_zpsab91a0d6.jpg

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – Movie Night Discussion Guide

Every so often we have a "movie night" with our congregation - not just to watch a movie and be entertained, but to discuss and to learn something from a great film.  What follows is the brief discussion guide I printed up for the group when we watched Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (Directed by Kenneth Branagh (1994)) a few years back.

Why Horror Films?
The Dark Side of Christianity – Here There Be Monsters – O God! What Have I Done? – Have Nothing to Do with Fruitless Deeds of Darkness but…

Mary Shelly
A Brief but Tragic Biographical Sketch of Science Fiction’s Mother

Or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death – Or The Year Without a Summer

Victor Frankenstein
Striving for Godhood

Wherein the Reader Is Encouraged to Contemplate What Frankenstein Means in Today’s World

A Bibliography

Why Horror Films?
The Dark Side of Christianity 
For many Christians “horror” is a genre of the devil.  They see the occult themes, the use of witchcraft, the monsters, and the blood drinking zombified creatures of the night, and they want nothing to do with it.  They take refuge in the apostle Paul’s exhortation to, “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” (Ephesians 5:11)

It is true that the Horror genre is filled with depictions of sin, vice, and carnality – but the same is true of any and every genre of writing or film.  There is just as much wickedness in Westerns and Romance Stories as there is in a tale of Horror – but because the Horror genre often includes the demonic (or, rather, what is labeled “demonic”) Christians often shy away from these tales of the gross and grotesque.

There is, however, a strong emphasis in Christian art throughout the centuries on the dark and the macabre.  A quick glance at the gargoyles carved into the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, the apocalyptic woodcuts of Albrect Dürer, the fantasies of C, Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and the trip through hell described by Dante Alighieri should convince us that it is, after all, a genre appropriate for Christians to consider. 

Here There Be Monsters
If we accept the Bible as the foundation of our worldview, then we should not automatically oppose tales of the supernatural and monstrous, because the Bible itself is filled with stories about witches, demons, and monsters.  There are Sea Monsters (Genesis 1: 21).  There are Unicorns (Isaiah 34: 6 – 7 in the KJV) Dragons (Revelation 12) and Satyrs (Isaiah 13:21). In Leviticus we find the desert demon named Azazel (Leviticus 16).  The prophet Isaiah describes the desert as the home of the “night hag,” Lilith – the enemy of newborn children (Isaiah 34:14).  Daniel includes a story of Lycanthropy (more accurately, Boanthropy, -Daniel 4).  Genesis describes the giant offspring resulting from intercourse between angels and human women (Genesis 6).  If we can accept monster stories in the Bible, why are we unwilling to accept other popular monster stories as well?

“Christianity is not a narrow, materialistic, boring world-view, such as the one satirized in the Harry Potter novels and taught in today’s schools. It is Christianity that has the open universe with room for both the natural and the supernatural, for the ordinary and the miraculous.  It is Christianity that recognizes the unseen truths of goodness and beauty and believes in a genuine battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.” (Vieth, 22)

O God! What Have I Done?
One of the reasons monster stories are so popular (and so beneficial) is that they allow us to confront our own evil in a safe – though sometimes frightening – situation. When we watch Lon Chaney Jr. in the classic Universal film The Wolf Man beg to be locked away before the next full moon because he’s afraid that he won’t be able to control his darkest, most animalistic desires, we can confront our own lusts.  When we watch the ambitious Victor Frankenstein attempt to reanimate dead tissue we can identify with his plan and reasoning.  We can confront our own fear of death and dying when we see zombies – those living, walking dead – lurching across the screen.  We can think about ourselves and our own ritualistic ‘going through the motions’ without thinking about the reasons (Ekolf, 2).  Monster movies allow us to see the reflection of ourselves that we’d rather not confront.

Monster movies give us a way to exorcise our demons, to shine the light of Christ on the vampires of our soul, and to fire the silver bullet of faith at the werewolves that plague us.  Wes Craven, graduate of Wheaton College and director of numerous horror films, including A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Dracula 2000, describes the cathartic potential of horror films: “Modern horror films of which I’m admittedly a practitioner, are to me simply post-traumatic nightmares of a world that has seen more horror than it can handle alone.  When we go to the theatre, it’s to have the terror of real life marshaled into some sort of order so that it can be dealt with.  The chaos is caged for a few hours in a graspable narrative.” (Stetson, 2)

Have Nothing To Do with Fruitless Deeds of Darkness, But…
While Paul encouraged Christians to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, that passage of refuge to Christians who shun the Horror genre actually goes on to say that light makes everything visible.  “This is why it is said, ‘Wake up O Sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.” This is what a horror story that is well told does; it shines the light of truth, the light of beauty, the light of Christ on the creatures of darkness that haunt our lives, and empowers us to rise from the dead.

Mary Shelly
A Brief but Tragic Biographical Sketch of Science Fiction’s Mother
Mary Shelly, the daughter of Mary Wollstoncraft – an early feminist and author – was born in 1797; her mother died a few days later. She was raised and educated by her philosopher father, William Godwin.  When she was 15 she met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, a political radical and free-thinker like her father.  In addition to being a friend and intellectual stimulus to Godwin Percy was also financially supporting the Godwin family. In 1814 the 16 year old Mary eloped with Percy Shelly (who had abandoned his own pregnant wife to be with her.)

In 1816 the couple travelled to Lake Geneva, Switzerland to be near the scandalous poet, Lord Byron, and a number of other poets and writers.  The “incessant rainfall” of that “wet, ungenial summer” forced Shelly and her friends to stay indoors during much of their holiday.  It was after reading a collection of ghost stories that the group decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story.  Mary described her inspiration this way:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together – I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”

Her novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, when she was only 20 years old.

A series of tragedies marked the next several years of her life; three of her children died in three successive years. And in 1822 Percy drowned in a boating accident in Italy.  After his death, Mary continued to edit her husband’s poems and essays as well as writing a number of other works herself.  She died in 1851.  Frankenstein remains her most famous work.
Or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death – Or The Year Without a Summer
1816 was noted for severe climate abnormalities around the world.  In the American Northeast snow, as well as lake and river ice, were reported in June.  Temperature changes for 95° down to near freezing occurred within a matter of hours.  Huge storms and abnormally large rainfalls caused floods across Europe.  Frost was reported in August.

The strange weather patterns of that year are thought to be the result of the volcanic eruptions of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, April 5th – 15th in 1815.  The eruptions flung immense amounts of dust and volcanic ash into the atmosphere.  Temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight was able to pass through the clouded skies.

Victor Frankenstein
Striving for Godhood
Ever since the Garden of Eden and that temptation to eat from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity has been striving in various ways to, as the serpent said, “become like gods.”  Frankenstein is the tale of one man’s attempt to become like God.

The good Victor Frankenstein, the dedicated scientist and persistent innovator, wanted to do something grand; he wanted to infuse a spark of life into a lifeless form.  He wanted to appropriate the power of God for himself.

“Life and death appeared to me ideal bound, which I should first breathe through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.  A new species would bless me as its creator…

He was driven by scientific curiosity and tragic ambition.  But, in the end, he was unable to handle the consequences of his actions. When he finished he realized that all his work, all his struggle, all his effort had succeeded only in creating a creature of horror and disgust; his admirable intentions were unrealized and he failed to achieve his lofty goal.

We are all like an unclean thing
and all our righteousnesses are
like filthy rags;
Isaiah 64: 6

 1) Victor’s ardent desire was to “render man invulnerable to any but a violent death…”  Mary Shelly, whose mother died as a result of complications during childbirth, wrote this story shortly after her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.  How does the fear of death and dying affect us?

2) The creation of Victor Frankenstein is never given a name – a fact that he laments at the end of the story.  He is repeatedly described by Victor as “my hideous progeny,” “monster,” “demon,” and “wretch.”  Of what importance is a name?  How does what we are called affect who we are?  Think of those in the Bible who underwent a change of name: Abram-Abraham, Jacob-Israel, Saul-Paul…

3) In the credits Robert De Niro’s role is listed as “The Sharp Featured Man” not as “The Monster” (the creature was never given a name).  Was he a monster?  Do we feel sympathy for him or for Victor Frankenstein?  Who is the bigger monster?

4) Kenneth Branagh, director and star of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein said, “The image I had in mind for the birth sequence is of a child born to parents who then walk out of the delivery room and leave this blood stained, fluid covered thing to just crawl around on its own.” How does our relationship with our fathers (and mothers) affect our relationship with the rest of the world?

5) Frankenstein, written at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has sometimes been described as a warning against the dangers of technology.  What should the role of science be?  How far should science go?  What does Frankenstein have to say about issues like human cloning and genetic manipulation?

6) What are the consequences of trying to be God?

7) It has been argued that Victor Frankenstein didn’t create a “monster,” that he created a loving sensitive creature, but it was society (including Victor) that made him into a monster with its alternating neglect and abuse.  Describe the cycle of violence in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  How can this cycle be broken?

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony I collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eyes of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  - From Victor Frankenstein’s Journal

The Creature

A Bibliography
Aldiss, Brian W. The Detached Retina, “Science Fiction’s Mother Figure,”
                Syracuse University Press, Syracuse NY, 1995.

Eklog, Todd, Frankenstein Meets the Exorcist: Embracing Your Inner Monster  Oct. 31, 2004

Greydannus, Steven D. Horror, the Grotesque, and the Macabre: A Christian Appraisal,

Salisbury, Mark, “Bringing to life Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” Fangoria, November, 1994.

Shelly, Mary, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, 1818.

Stetson, Brad, “Nights of the Living Dead,” Christianity Today Magazine,

Tenner, Edward, Why Things Bite Back: Technology  and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,
                Alfred Knopf, Inc, New York NY, 1996.

Veith, Gen Edward “Good Fantasy and Bad Fantasy,” Christian Research Journal,
                Volume 23, Number 1

Am I the One Saying “No”? - Some Thoughts on Psalm 14

Probably the first thing to note is that Psalm 14 is almost completely, word for word, replicated in Psalm 53.  Lay them side by side; you’ll see it.[i] The endings are different, and Yahweh in 14 is replaced with Elohim in 53.  Some have suggested that the divergences are the result of the different traditions in the Northern (53) and Southern (14) kingdoms.[ii]  Which came first?  Or did they both deviate from another source?  Short of building a time machine, we might never know.

I have heard many preachers, commentators, and Sunday School teachers apply this psalm (“The fool says in his heart, “there is no God”…) to modern day Atheists.  One commentary on my shelves refers to the “they” in these verses as “arrogant materialists” and says “this may well be the twentieth-century man.”[iii]  But I think this might be a mistake.   This is not about atheism – the philosophical position that God (gods) does (do) not exist. 

For one thing the words “there is” in the line “The fool says in his heart there is no god…” are not actually in the Hebrew; they are supplied by the translators.  The literal text says “The fool says in his heart no god.”  [iv]  This can justifiably be read as someone who says “no” to God, one who defies God and his commands.  And this reading fits very well with rest of the psalm.

And even if it were to be applied to those “arrogant materialists” those “atheists” this psalm resists a simple us –vs. - them kind of interpretation.  “They” (whoever “they” are) are corrupt and have done abominable works.  But keep reading, “there is none who does good.”  The apostle Paul quotes from this psalm in his letter to the Romans and makes it even more clear, “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.  They have all turned aside…[v]

We all, at one point or many points, have been guilty of this stubborn refusal to acknowledge God.  Before we start using this psalm as an aggressive attack on those “foolish” atheists who refuse to accept the existence of God, it would be best to look inward.  Am I the one saying “no” to God?

Dahood, Mitchell Anchor Bible Vol. 16: Psalms 1 – 50,  Doubleday & Company, Inc,
Garden City, NY 1966 – page 81
[iii] Kidner, Derek,  Psalms 1 – 72: An Introduction & Commentary, Intervarsity Press,
Downers Grove, IL 1973. – page 79
[v] Romans 3: 10 - 12

Room 237: Making the Text Plastic

Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo Moon landing – but was unable to live with the secrecy imposed upon him by the US government, so he revealed the truth of his involvement through clues embedded in the movie The Shining.  The Shining is a message about the Nazis’ holocaust of the Jews during World War II; - it’s obvious from all the occurrences of the number 42 as well as the repeated instances of 7 and its multiples.  The Shining is about the US extermination of American Indians, it’s a Freudian analysis of fairy tales.  It’s a horror movie, it’s a social critique, it’s a coded message.

What is going on here?

The documentary film Room 237 (2012) explores a variety of perceived interpretations, fringe interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (1977).  Room 237 is a magnificently clever film that makes its source material into a plastic, malleable text, twisting and stretching it into fantastic and fanciful new shapes.  It makes interpretation into a wonderful game, a novelty. Each of the alternate interpretations of The Shining on view in Room 237 is stranger than the last.  That’s not surprising really; The Shining is already a complicated film that resists definitive interpretation.

Room 237 fascinates me as a preacher.  Much of my work is interpretation. And not only do I work on interpreting the Bible for myself – so that I can present it intelligibly to my congregation, but I also look at the way that others interpret this shared text – the Bible.  I want to understand the ‘rules’ that constrain our interpretive work.  What keeps us from turning the Bible into Room 237?

Honestly, it’s very easy to turn the Bible into a plastic, malleable text, to twist it and stretch it into fantastic and fanciful new shapes.  I’ve written about some of those here in this blog before – interpretations that find spaceships crash landing on the earth with superior space people – Adam and Eve to populate the Earth. Or interpretations that decode the scriptures to reveal that Jesus was thwarted by the Romans in his attempt to reclaim the throne of David and so sent his wife and two sons into hiding in France . And there are numerous other perceived interpretations, fringe interpretations that could be listed here, some that are merely odd but also others that have had horrific and tragic consequences. 

We appreciate Stanley Kubrick’s films because they are complex and because they resist simple, easy answers.  The same is true of the Bible.  It stimulates our thinking and our imaginations with its complexities and puzzles.  But how firm or how loose are the rules governing interpretation?  How free are we as the audience of The Shining or readers of the scriptures to disregard authorial / directorial intent when forming our interpretation?  How are we to find the meaning in these texts when there is such a multiplicity of meanings being proposed? Which one is correct?  Are they all correct?  Are they all wrong?  How do we know?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pray for Us, Saint Helveticus

St. Helveticus was born in Spiez, Switzerland on the shores of Lake Thun, in the year 1627.  He was a tall, thin man with extraordinarily small feet.  After completing his education and several years of teaching at the University of Helmstedt in Germany, he returned to his native Spiez to continue his studies privately. Although he had, while still at university, perfected a number of alchemical processes, his intensely private nature made it difficult for him to lecture or to demonstrate his work to his students or fellow professors. His formula for a reverse transmutation of elements (turning Gold into baser elements like Lead) was described, but without any specific details, by many who were in attendance for his final lecture.

After returning to the place of his birth, he secluded himself within his laboratory inside the walls of Spiez Castle.  There he developed many more alchemical formulas - few of which have survived to this day.  The journals containing his work were mostly destroyed in a fire in 1873.  Hagiographers have poured over the remaining scraps of his writings and have scoured the libraries of Switzerland, hoping to find something more.  Though usually eclipsed by another, more famous, Swiss alchemist – Paracelsus – Saint Helvitcus continues to inspire.

Come, effervescence.
Come, bubbling mystery.
Come, hidden secrets;
enlighten your humble student.

Teach me the formula by which you can be known.
Teach me the changes I must make.

-From the fragments of St. Helveticus’ journal

Monday, October 21, 2013

When Someone Asks You If You're a God, You Say, "Yes!"

(disregard the earlier posting of this same thing.  I'm an idjit and typed Luke instead of John...)

It’s Not Really Haiku

bright October air
a cool forty-eight
            I wait to pick up the kids

dark, roasted coffee
from the corner-store
            I listen to the radio

the bell finally rings
here come those wild children
            the song’s not over

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - 2013 - Week 44

Here it is... this week's free background image. I use them in Powerpoint sides (I know. I know.  Nobody uses powerpoint anymore...)  But you are free to use them in other presentation programs or to use them in other projects in other ways.  Use them at home, at work, at school, at church, or at fight club (but don't talk about it). Use them however you like.  I only ask that you share them freely with others and that you tell anyone and everyone that you found them here.

Week 44 photo Week44_zpse59acf3c.jpg

Psalm 46 - Approaching the Inaccessible Silence of God

In our daily lives we are rarely silent.  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may have sung that “silence is golden,” but I think that, for most of us, the lyric from the Simon and Garfunkle song, “The Sound of Silence, is more accurate, “silence like a cancer grows.” Silence is difficult to achieve, surrounded as we are by televisions, radios, computers, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioners, furnaces, refrigerators, fluorescent lights, etc… Sound permeates everywhere.[i]

And even if we could achieve silence, we’re likely to find it extremely uncomfortable. 

There are rooms – called “anechoic chambers” designed to be completely soundproof.  No sound gets in from outside their walls; they are 99.99% sound absorbent with a decibel rating of −9.4 dBA.[ii]  These rooms are so quiet that you can hear the beating of your own heart.  But the human mind isn’t able to cope with this amount of silence.  People who spend any length of time within an anechoic chamber grow physically disoriented, they fall over if they’re not sitting in a chair, and they begin to experience auditory hallucinations. The brain starts to generate noise in order to fill in that silence.  (By the way… the longest that anyone has spent in one of these soundproofed rooms is only 45 minutes.)

We don’t know how to handle silence.  It disturbs us. 

The Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote, “Outwardly all silences seem alike.”[iii]  We don’t know how to read these silences because they all seem the same.  If someone is silent we can’t quite tell if they’re angry, hostile, disinterested, confused, bored, happy, or irritated, or any number of other emotions.  Perhaps they’re accusing us… or waiting for us to speak… Maybe they’re depressed and I should say something comforting…  We don’t know how to read the silences between us as so we try to fill up those silences with small talk and chit-chat.  “So…how about them [insert your favorite sport team]?  Did you see the latest episode of that show we like?  Can you believe that [disliked politician] said such and such?  Did you see what currently popular actress was wearing?”  We’re so uncomfortable with silence that we feel it necessary to till with something – even the meaningless jibber jabber of small talk.

But I’m not sure that it’s supposed to be that way.  Repeatedly throughout the bible we’re instructed to “be still” to “be silent.”

If you were to attend a service with the Society of Friends (otherwise known as Quakers) you’d find that instead of a preplanned meeting with songs for everyone to sing and readings to be read aloud by the congregation, the members of the congregation sit together in silence until the Spirit of the Lord moves someone to speak.

The Quakers intentionally practice the spiritual discipline of silence in their worship by waiting – in silence – for the Lord to move them.  They have a saying, “Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence.”[iv]  There are times in their meetings when no one says anything at all and then they all go home. And the marvelous thing is that they don’t go home thinking that they’ve wasted their time.  Instead, they are delighted to have spent quality time in the presence of God and their fellow believers.

And they aren’t the only ones.  From Greek Orthodox Christians come the traditions of the hesychasts – individuals who spend their days in silence, listening for and to the voice of God.   They ignore their physical senses, trying to acquire an inner stillness with the goal of attaining an experiential knowledge of God.  They are seeking God in the silence.

Be still and know that I am God.”  Psalm 46: 10
Yahweh is in his holy Temple, let the whole earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20
The earth is silent with dread when God takes his stand to give judgment.”  Psalm 76: 8
In John’s vision of heaven there was a “silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1) that preceded the coming of the Lord.

Silence precedes the coming of the Lord.  Silence precedes the voice of God. Paul wrote to Timothy that God dwells in “inaccessible light,” (1 Timothy 6:16) and if I may extrapolate from his visual description to provide an aural, I would suggest that God also dwells in an inaccessible silence. The noise and confusion of our world, the buzz, buzz, buzz of those constant demands on our attention pull us further and further away from the silence of God.

Maybe we think that this kind of spiritual discipline – listening to the silence for the voice of God  - is more suited for monks in a monastery or spiritual hermits living in caves or in the desert.  And, it may be true that living a devoted space like a monastery or living alone away from the rest of the world might make it easier to experience that concentrated silence that precedes the voice of God, it is not necessary.  It just takes practice.

The Psalm begins, “God is both a refuge and strength for us, a help always ready in trouble.” Already in the first verse we’re being told that this instruction to silence comes from a place of noisy struggle and desperate need.  The further we go into this psalm, the more we find this to be true – the earth is in turmoil, the mountains are tumbling, the oceans are roaring and foaming and seething, nations are in upheaval, kingdoms are at war.  There is conflict. Battle.  Struggle.  Violence.

But in the center of it all - in the eye of the storm, as it were – is a champion who is unmoved by this tumultuous chaos.  In the middle of all this is the instruction “Be still and know that I am God.”  Here is that silence that precedes the voice of God.

The cacophony around threatens to overwhelm us.  The noise and chaos batters at us – but if we can be still, if we can turn our focus away from these distractions and listen to the silence, we will hear from God.

[i] Everywhere there is a medium through which the sound waves can travel, anyway…

[iii] "Outwardly all silences seem alike, as all minutes are alike by the clock. But inwardly the Divine Leader of worship directs us through progressive unfoldings of ministration Words should not break our silence, but continue it. For the Divine Life who was ministering through the medium of silence is the same Life as is now ministering through words. And when such words are truly spoken ‘in the Life' then when such words cease the uninterrupted silence and worship continue, for silence and words have been of one texture, one piece." -- Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

[iv] I cannot find the original source of this quote.  I find it attributed to many different authors.
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