Thursday, July 31, 2008

Please Come Here. Now Go Away.

The other day, I accused Dietrich Bonhoeffer of writing turgid prose, and I stand by that accusation. But some of that turgescence is worth wading through, such as in the following quote about the importance of balance between community and solitude. Whether you're an introvert, an extrovert, or some undefined other, this is good stuff.

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils.

One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

From Bonhoeffer's "Life Together," 1939

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can Beauty Exist Without the Transcendent? Sebastian and Fred Duke it Out on the Pianoforte

I recently read a book by James R. Gaines entitled Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. This lively book is a fascinating dual biography of two men who lived contemporaneously, met exactly once, and had radically different world views. If you are interested in Bach, Enlightenment history, or philosophy, it's worth checking out.

Bach was what we now would call "old school." He believed there was a God in heaven who governed the affairs of man and was worthy of our worship. He preached sin and redemption in his music, and saw Jesus as the only hope of mankind. As a master composer and performer, the saw the purpose of music as something to glorify God and build up the soul. Even his "secular" works were dedicated to God.

Frederick, on the other hand, was a man of the Enlightenment. He believed that man was the master of his destiny and that science, government, warfare, and art would bring about the best of all possible worlds. As King of Prussia, the forerunner of today's Germany, he captured much territory, began to unite the disparate nation-states of that area, and was arguably the most powerful man of his time. (And you say, "Who?")

Bach and Frederick the Great met each other exactly once, when Bach came to visit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was in the king's employ as a musician. Frederick, himself a musician of modest ability, presented Bach with a theme that he (or Carl?) had written, and he challenged Bach to play a three-part fugue on this convoluted, rather unmusical theme. Apparently this was a taunt and a mean challenge, but Bach rose to the occasion, and according to a newspaper report of the time, astounded his hearers with the fugue he improvised.

Not to be shown up, Frederick challenged Bach further by asking him to improvise a six-part theme. Bach couldn't do it, and Frederick sent him home with his tail between his legs. The tail came out a couple months later, however, when Bach mailed off to Frederick what we now know as "The Musical Offering," which includes not only a six-part fugure on the king's theme, but several other pieces which use the theme as a starting point. Even the title "Musical Offering" is an interesting invention, as it can also be translated "Musical Sacrifice." Every indication is that Frederick's theme was designed to show that Bach wasn't such a wonderful musician, after cut him down to size by presenting a royal theme beyond Bach's compositional or improvisatorial abilities. Bach was "sacrificed" on the altar of Frederick's malevolence (Frederick at this point in his life being a lover of only himself - he came from one messed-up family, that's for sure), but Bach came back to life and wrote something that is still played and listened to today. Few people, on the other hand, bother to read the books Frederick wrote.

All of this is simply excessive set-up to a quote from Gaines's book that draws an interesting distinction between beauty and prettiness. Without religion, can beauty exist?

Bach's Musical Offering leaves us, among other things, a compelling case for the following proposition: that a world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; and that the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

News You May Have Missed: Liquid Eel for Summer Refreshment

I drive a Japanese car, and I almost like sushi, but I don't think I'll be stocking the refrigerator with the latest Japanese creation:

TOKYO (AP) — It's the hottest season of the year in Japan, and that means it's eel season. So, bottom's up!

A canned drink called "Unagi Nobori," or "Surging Eel," made by Japan Tobacco Inc., hit the nation's stores this month just ahead of Japan's annual eel-eating season, company spokesman Kazunori Hayashi said Monday.

"It's mainly for men who are exhausted by the summer's heat," Hayashi said of the beverage, believed to be the first mass-produced eel drink in Japan.

Many Japanese believe eating eel boosts stamina in hot weather.

The fizzy, yellow-colored drink contains extracts from the head and bones of eel and five vitamins — A, B1, B2, D and E — contained in the fish.


Demand for eel is so high that Japan has been hit by scores of eel fraud cases, including a recent high-profile incident in which a government ministry publicly scolded two companies for mislabeling eel imported from China as being domestically grown.

... The $1.30 drink costs about one-tenth as much as broiled eel, but has a similar flavor.

Eel extract is also used in cookies and pies made in Japan's biggest eel producing town, Hamamatsu.

Yum. Eel cookies for dessert!
Source: Associated Press. Slightly edited for brevity.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Noted and Quoted: Strength From Adversaries

"He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper."

- Edmund Burke (1729-1797)
I first came across this quote a few years ago, when I was working with a rather difficult individual who was later to become my boss. We ended up getting along quite well, as it turned out, but I've held on to the quotation, nonetheless.
Whether in the workplace or in our personal lives, our tendency is to see those who disagree with us (not to mention those who are out to get us) as obstacles, problems, and annoyances. But there is a sense in which they are the ones who do the best job of making us think. I may know exactly what I believe, and as long as I'm around like-minded people, I'll never have to think my convictions through. But put me with a person of a different mind, and all the applicable presuppositions, analyses, and conclusions come into question and beg reexamination.
I'm not at the point of seeking adversaries; they seem to come along often enough, unbidden. But when they do come, I want to welcome them as friends in disguise. They will help me think farther and live better.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1.2-4

For by wise guidance you will wage war, And in abundance of counselors there is victory.
Proverbs 24.6

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Wittenburg Door On: Church Music

A preliminary note to the irony-impaired: This is satire. Or then again, maybe not.

Your Guide to Contemporary Christian Music
By Dale Peterson

Thank you for choosing to worship with us today. If you are from a church that uses traditional hymns, you may be confused. Please take a moment to read through this guide to contemporary Christian music.

In our church you will not hear "How Great Thou Art," "Wonderful Grace of Jesus," or "Like a River Glorious." (Generally, hymns that have words like “Thou” are not used. They are too archaic and are normally replaced by words like “awesome” and “miry clay”). Yes, okay, we may do "Amazing Grace" or "Peace Like a River" at some point, but as a general rule we avoid songs with too many different verses or those that can't be played easily on guitar and drums.

If you are new to worship here, you may wish to know the reasons for this. One is that deep theological concepts do not belong in contemporary Christian worship. We frown on songs that change more than one or two words for each verse. For example, our version of "Holy is the Lord" consists of repeating that phrase six times per verse and then changing "Holy" to "Worthy," "Mighty," "Jesus" and finally changing "the" to "my." Isn’t that much simpler to sing and easier to remember? The twin goals here are a) repetition and b) chanting quality. We don’t focus on what we’re singing, but how we’re singing it. The main thing is to get that kind of tingly, "olive oily" feeling. Don't worry if you don't get this right away. It will come as you learn to disengage your intellect. Just free yourself. Immerse yourself. Relax.

Nevertheless, a traditional hymn may sometimes be used. For example, we’re not averse to "Holy, Holy, Holy." You may be tempted to sing this as you would have in your former church, but please note that it is sung here with changes, mainly the fact that we repeat it several times and try to sing as slowly as possible, thereby emphasizing the funereal nature of the verse.

Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. We repeat: Repetition is very important in contemporary Christian music. Just because a song may have one verse and one chorus does not mean that you only sing it through once. Old hymns have several verses, each of which introduces a new theological concept, and are meant to be sung once followed by "Amen." This is no longer how it’s done. The correct procedure is to sing the identical verse and chorus at least three times. Often it is preferable to repeat the verse two times initially before moving on to the chorus.

Also the worship leader may want to repeat a verse or chorus found in the middle of the song. This is signaled by “calling an audible." When this occurs, the worship leader will say the first few words of the verse or chorus he will be singing next. Sometimes, due to the similarity of the verses, this may be confusing and the overhead projector may flash several pages of text until the correct one is arrived at. Don't panic, this is normal. Just continue singing as though you know the words and soon either the correct slide will appear or a new chorus will begin.

After the verse and chorus are sung at least three times, it is permissible for the song to end. However, the chorus must first be repeated in its entirety, then the last paragraph, then the last line. When singing the last line it is important to slow down a little and look upward. Raising a hand is permissible and often done at this time. This may take a little getting used to but don't worry, if you just join in, in a short time you won't even notice and soon you will forget that you ever did it any other way.

We are just really glad you chose to share the worship experience with us today. Thank you and we hope to see you again soon.

Thank you and we hope to see you again soon. Thank you. Thank.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Augustine On: Church Music

I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.
- St. Augustine, Confessions, A.D. 354-430

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A(nother) Book I Dislike But Am Supposed to Love

I admit it. There are some books and authors I just don't "get." John Piper and I probably share the same theological convictions on most items of substance, but his overwrought style (even in print) makes me want to buy him some quaaludes and tell him to go home, put on his bunny slippers, and chill out with a high gravity beer and a cigar. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's turgid prose makes my eyes glass over - does he just need a better translator? My aversion to John Eldredge is legendary and enduring, and had a lot to do with starting this blog and my website.

There are others. But today, I want to focus on Brother Lawrence and "his" book, The Practice of the Presence of God. I put "his" in quotes, because Brother Lawrence (hereafter to be referred to as BL) didn't even write this book. Some unnamed narrator(s) did. Since its publication around 1675, this book has been beloved by millions of Christians. I am almost the only person I know who hates it. I've read it at least three times over the last three decades, by the way - most recently in April of this year - so at least give me credit for trying.

What's my problem? Well, let's see:
  • BL comes across to me as a wacko social misfit who couldn't make it in the real world so retreated to a monastery which he seldom if ever left for the last 54 of his 77 years.
  • I have never understood how an eccentric monastic like this is supposed to serve as a role model for the rest of us who live in the real world, with all that living here entails.
  • The book is poorly written and ploddingly translated. I've read two different versions, and both were tedious.
  • The book is an organizational mess. In my version, there are two prefaces, a "conversation," a section of letters, and after a few other odds and ends, a character sketch, followed by "gathered thoughts," not to be confused with the "maxims" that were 25 pages earlier. Huh?
  • There's no coherence to all this, and no one takes credit for writing any of it. There are no details, such as when the letters were written or to whom they were (or weren't) sent. If this book were a high school project, the kid would get a "redo."
  • The book is a hagiography. BL seems more a caricature than a real person.
  • Most of the time, I can't figure out what the heck is going on or what point BL or the narrator are trying to make. The book is uncritical, unedited ramblings.
  • BL makes tons of unsupported assertions about God, prayer, our spiritual obligations, etc. The narrator seems to assume that if BL says it, it must be true. So this leads to goofy statements like times of prayer shouldn't be any different from other times, because we should always be tuned into God (p. 26 in my Spire version). Sounds good, but how does that explain Jesus's practice of withdrawing from ministry for times of prayer?
  • Is there any evidence that BL had any missional (i.e., evangelistic) interests whatsoever?
  • BL is in constant awareness of the presence of God, ostensibly, yet there are only 9 references in the entire book to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. In my version, that means Jesus is mentioned once for every 12.4 pages. What's wrong with this picture?

In 112 pages, there were a small handful of thoughts I found valuable, but I remain at a loss to understand the belovedness of this book. Maybe I'm not really saved? Or, perhaps, is it that we simply like the title and praise the book on that account without actually reading it? Many years ago, I did read a book called Caring Enough to Confront. It was pretty boring and not very helpful, but the wonderful title has stuck with me for 30 years, and I still use the phrase from time to time in conversation. Perhaps Practicing the Presence of God is like that.

The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest." (Exodus 33.14)

"And surely I [Jesus] am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28.20)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Reads a Blog? Does it Matter?

Following the advice of Ralph McInerny that I quoted in a blog post over a year ago, I try to write my entries here in such a way that others will want to read them.
But I've never really been satisfied with the number who do read. Why do other blogs have hundreds or even thousands of readers, while my own incredible blog struggles along with a mere handful?
A quotation I came across in yesterday's Wall Street Journal helped me understand that while every writer hopes for a large readership - and every author wants to write a best seller - maybe the act of writing is a good in itself. Even if no others read, the author may still gain.
I do find that this blog helps me think issues through. It's a repository of some notable things I read elsewhere and want to remember. And it meets my needs for creativity which, though small, do exist.
Here's the W. Somerset Maugham quote that got me thinking about this yesterday. With apologies to a dead man, I changed "book" to "blog" to make the thought more obviously applicable:
It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of blogs that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any blog will make its way among the multitude? And the successful blogs are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours' relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these blogs are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labor of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.
From "The Moon and Sixpence" by W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

Monday, July 21, 2008

From Compliance to Formation to Transformation

"The genius of the moral teachings of Jesus and his first students was his insistence that you cannot keep the law by trying not to break the law. That will only make a Pharisee of you and sink you into layers of hypocrisy. Instead, you have to be transformed in the functions of the soul so that the deeds of the law are a natural outflow of who you have become. This is spiritual formation in the Christian way, and it must always be kept in mind when we consider Jesus’s teaching about various behaviors – in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.

For example, his famous teaching about turning the other cheek. If all you intend is to do that, you will find you can do it with a heart still full of bitterness and vengefulness. If, on the other hand, you become a person who has the interior character of Christ, remaining appropriately vulnerable will be done as a matter of course, and you will not think of it as a big deal."

- Dallas Willard, The Great Omission," p. 152

Friday, July 11, 2008

Preview of the New Star Wars Movie

My scouts are everywhere. Here's a clip from the new Star Wars installment that George Lucas is working on:

You're welcome.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Holy, Strong, Loving, . . . Smart?

Today many evangelicals are trying to reexamine this issue [of the role of reason in faith], and they must do so in order to capture Christ as Teacher and begin to think of him as an intelligent person - which is now almost impossible for many people, evangelical or not. If you ask evangelicals to pick the smartest man in the world, very few of them will list Jesus Christ. And surely that is sad. It is a modern-day form of Docetism. But if he is divine, would he be dumb? And how can you be a disciple of someone you don't think of as really bright?

- Dallas Willard, "The Great Omission," p. 168

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

News You May Have Missed: Stimulus = Stimulation

Yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution tells us where a lot of those $600 economic stimulus checks have been going. And you thought it was for gas or paying down debt. Think again:

Stimulus checks boost adult Web sites
By Tammy Joyner, Cox News Service
Tuesday, July 08, 2008

ATLANTA — Seems Uncle Sam's economic stimulus checks are boosting an unlikely part of the economy.

Adult entertainment Web sites began seeing a spike in business shortly after the first wave of checks went out in mid-May, according to Adult Internet Market Research Co., a New York firm that tracks the adult online world.

The checks paid up to $600 to individuals and $1,200 to married couples.

The online spike is unusual since the warmer months — beginning in May — tend to be slow for the adult online entertainment industry, said Kirk Mishkin, director of the market research firm.

The market research firm was alerted to the increase by one of its for-pay Web sites.

"Thirty-two percent of respondents referenced the recent stimulus package as part of their decision to either become a new member or renew an existing membership," said Jillian Fox, a spokeswoman for LSGModels, the company that tipped off the research firm.

The market research firm polled the rest of its 800 pay site members and 4,000 affiliates sites, and found similar results after compiling data over seven weeks.

Some 20 percent to 30 percent of the people who responded said the stimulus checks were an incentive to go onto the sites, Mishkin said.

The surveys didn't ask how much of the stimulus checks went to online visits, Mishkin said, but purchases tend to be around $50 for a monthly membership.

"People know how much they need to pay for rent, buy gas and take their kids to school," he said. "The stimulus check was a way for some people to entertain themselves."

The biggest surprise from this article? Actually, two: first, that the "adult online entertainment industry" is seasonal; and second, that this reporter could write an entire article about pornography without once using the word.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Viral. Contagious.

I must be about the last person on earth to see Matt Harding's "Dancing" video. I first heard about it today on the NY Times website . After reading the article, of course I wanted to see the video, which is here:

This video has nearly 5 million views, and over 23,000 people have rated it (with an average rating of 5 stars).

On the face of it, this is just a video of a guy doing a goofy dance. With some beautiful music for the soundtrack. But for me, and I'm guessing for a few million others, this strikes a deeper chord, even a sense of longing, or yearning. What do people see in this? What do I?
  • Community?
  • Acceptance?
  • Joy?

Matt Harding's web site is here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Full Time Christian Work

Happy Monday. Here's a thought for the week:

It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it.
- A.W. Tozer, "The Pursuit of God," p. 118

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Church in Less Than Three Minutes

Thought you might enjoy a 1-minute video of church today:

And here was the scene across town at the Episcopal cathedral (warning: includes profanity. . . you know how those Episcopalians can be):

Friday, July 4, 2008

Who Needs Grace?

You will consume much more grace by leading a holy life than you will by sinning, because every holy act you do will have to be upheld by the grace of God.
- Dallas Willard, "The Great Omission," p. 62

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

That's the question asked in the July-August 2008 issue of The Atlantic. How is our incessant use of the Internet changing our brains? Are we thinking and learning differently as a result of our exposure to the Web? I see elements of myself in this article, and it gives me pause. Check out a couple excerpts:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.


As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.


“I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print” . . . . Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

You can read this thoroughly fascinating essay here, and I hope you will. I'd love to hear your feedback. Is there something to this? And if so, should we be doing something different in order to preserve or retrain our minds?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Napalm is Very Powerful"

OK, I admit it. I'm a softie. More often than most would suspect, something makes me teary-eyed. A story I heard Monday on NPR's All Things Considered was one of those times. It was an essay by "the girl in the photo." The photo in questions is one of the most iconic of the Vietnam war and was taken after "our" side dropped napalm on a village in an attempt to flush out the bad guys. I remember the picture well, as I was a teenager in those days (but too young to have been drafted). Regardless of your age, you've probably seen the photo at one time or another.

Here's what Kim Phuc had to say about her experience:

On June 8, 1972, I ran out from Cao Dai temple in my village, Trang Bang, South Vietnam; I saw an airplane getting lower and then four bombs falling down. I saw fire everywhere around me. Then I saw the fire over my body, especially on my left arm. My clothes had been burned off by fire.

I was 9 years old but I still remember my thoughts at that moment: ...

You can listen to the rest of her essay (about 5 minutes) or read it here, but listening's better.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Christians Look Really Stupid

Here's yesterday's post from I hope Hemant doesn't mind me just reproducing most of his post, but it's good as is. No need for additional commentary.

The religious right group American Family Association’s OneNewsNow site seems to have an automatic filter that replaces the word “gay” with “homosexual.”

Because they want to use the more harsh sounding term, perhaps?

So when runner Tyson Gay won the 100 meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials over the weekend, here’s what the news site wrote:

The article has since been corrected.

However, this article mentioning basketball player Rudy Gay, still needs some fixing…