Reflections from Seminary Students

Film Review: The Last Station

November 29th, 2010 § 0 Comments

The Last Station directed by Michael Hoffman (Egoli Tossell Film and Zephyr Films, R for strong sexual content, 112 minutes)

Starring Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Christopher Plummer.

The Last Station documents the final years of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren). The plot centers on Tolstoy’s later-life philosophies such as nonviolent resistance and social justice. Most of Tolstoy’s closest advisors are pressuring the old author to redraft his will in order to give his publications to public domain. Sofya, however, becomes paranoid concerning these idealistic philosophies and worries that losing copyrights to her husband’s work would equal a return to poverty. Tolstoy’s closest confidant, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) hires a Tolstoyan – one who follows the teachings of Tolstoy – named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to assist Leo and keep a close watch on Sofya.

As the biopic unfolds, Bulgakov befriends both Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. He learns that Leo is not a very good Tolstoyan and that Sofya’s criminal sin against the Tolstoyan movement is loving her family. The contentious moments in Leo and Sofya’s marriage center around money and the security it brings. This concept raises a big question: How much should one generously give to the poor of society? Clearly, it is morally reprehensible to give nothing and succumb to self-righteous greed. However, is it also a morally questionable position to give everything away? What responsibility does one have to his or her family?

The Last Station vividly portrays the turmoil of people trying to live at extremes on both ends. It seems both Leo and Sofya have elements of truth in their positions. On Leo’s side, he comprehends the Gospel truth of giving to the poor. On Sofya’s side, she sees the ludicrousness of giving all the assets away so that the Tolstoy family becomes the very thing that it is trying to correct.

For me, truth lies somewhere in the middle. Giving to the poor ought to result in some sort of sacrifice. In other words, generous giving needs to be felt in the pocketbook. If the end of the month comes and you give 10% without an afterthought, perhaps you are not giving sacrificially. However, if you give all that you have every month and allow debt to cascade down on you in such a way that you can ill-afford basic needs, perhaps you are giving too much. It seems, however, that most of us reside in the first category giving less than 10%. Perhaps we all could become better Tolstoyans.

The Last Station is beautifully filmed, well-written, and marvelously acted. It’s a slow paced drama with an immense subject matter. If you are interested in Leo Tolstoy, the Tolstoyan movement, or the difficulties of monetary generosity, I recommend that you watch this movie.

Book Review: Flickering Pixels

November 22nd, 2010 § 0 Comments

Flickering Pixels:How Technology Shapes Your Faith
By Shane Hipps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 208 pp)

Before committing to professional vocational ministry, Shane Hipps held a position with Porsche Cars North America working on communications strategy. After a stint in the corporate world, he received a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. Hipps pastored Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona, before he became teaching pastor of Mars Hill Grand Rapids in 2010.

Little Dots Comprise the Image

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a pixel as any of the small discrete elements that together constitute an image. The pixel is a building block, a portion of the larger whole. Without pixels, no image exists.

Similarly, people are the building blocks of culture and society as a whole. If the entire population of one country moves to another continent, no culture remains. In Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps attempts to break down technology in order to analyze its building blocks and its effects on society.

With his prior career in advertising providing a unique perspective on the relationship between media and culture, Hipps writes Flickering Pixels in a skeptical voice. The basic thesis found in these chapters is a request to pause, take a step back, and evaluate the way media and technology influence our culture and more specifically our faith.

Technology’s Relationship With Culture

Although not evident in everyday life, technology continually reshapes culture. The Greatest Generation remembers life before and after the television set; Baby Boomers consider life before landing on the moon different from life after the moon landing; Generation X defines itself in relation to the computer, and the Millennial Generation identifies life in pre- and post-iPhone terms.

Looking back at how society functioned decades earlier provides evidence for changes in culture, but we do not often consider how technology has altered culture over the years. For example, text messaging enabled people to send quick and efficient messages to each other. This technology, however, included some unintended consequences: the rise of text messaging prompted the rise of chat speak (e.g., Lol, wut, 2kewl4u, rotfl).

Technology’s Relationship With Faith

Just as technology creates inadvertent outcomes for culture as a whole, Hipps narrows the focus to effects of technology on the Christian faith. Referencing the influence of the printing press on the Reformation, the author contends that technology has been shaping Christian tradition for millennia.

More specifically, when the printing press provided Bibles in the vernacular of the common people, the way culture viewed Scripture fundamentally changed. Whereas stained-glass windows were previously the medium of choice when depicting gospel messages to the masses, the printing press created access to the logically linear arguments of Paul. Exchanging icons for a text, those Protestants participating in the Reformation paved the way for a Christianity defined by logic and reason.

As Hipps contends, since the presentation of the gospel through technological means carries residual effects, it is important to evaluate its impact. Should churches simulcast sermons on video screens? On the one hand, simulcasting offers the benefits of increasing the number of people capable of hearing the message. On the other hand, presenting a sermon on video creates a pressure to place unwanted preference on the appearance of the pastor and his or her surroundings.

To What Extent Should We Accept Technology in Our Faith?

Even though I find value in stepping back and continually evaluating the effects of technology on my faith, I am afraid that Flickering Pixels reads as a warning against the uses of technology in the church — as if a wrong technological step in the modern church leads to heresy.

When Hipps references his previous career in marketing, he seems to be ashamed of his actions. His starting position is that his work of marketing luxury automobiles was morally wrong. In my opinion, the author seems to associate the use of technology to promote Christianity in the same skeptical light.

As a pixel is the building block for an image, perhaps technology is a building block for successfully sharing the Christian faith. Although we should avoid uncritically accepting technology in our faith and cultures, it is important that we avoid the overreaction of skeptically dismissing technology.

Despite Hipps’ cynicism of technology, Flickering Pixels is a short, quick, and thought-provoking book worth reading.

-Donovan Richards

Editor’s Note: Originally published at the the Center for Integrity in Business.

Christian Ethics: Improvisation

November 17th, 2010 § 0 Comments

Last spring quarter, I took an ethics class taught by Dr. Doug Koskela. This class discussed various topics such as glossolalia, eschatology, and ecclesiology. While I found these subjects interesting, I particularly enjoyed the study around Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics, a book written by Samuel Wells. Below is an overview of Wells argument followed by an application.

In order to accurately and critically assess Wells’ position on Christian ethics, it is imperative to identify an outline of the basic argument.  To start, Wells believes that the classical formulations in ethics do not touch the root questions behind ethics in general.  In other words, the study of ethics has long been a pursuit of discerning a proper action given a set of differing actions.  However, this view is like placing a Band-Aid on an open wound; it may cover the grotesque but it will not heal the wound by itself.  “Ethics,” proclaims Wells,

“is about making good people who live faithfully, rather than about guiding actions so that any person can act rightly.  Ethics is about forming lives of commitment, rather than informing lives without commitment” (Wells, 30).

Understanding that ethics are not about promoting proper action and instead are about forming proper people, Wells presents a perspective on Christian ethics using an analogy of improvisation.  Simply put, a Christian functions properly as a human being when he or she improvises based on the previous theatrical acts in salvation history.  If one views church history in narrative terms, he or she can easily conclude as Wells does that Christianity constitutes a

“five-act play [where]  Act One is creation, Act Two is Israel, Act Three is Jesus, Act Four is the church, and Act Five is the eschaton” (53).

As Christians living today, we are “performing” in Act Four.  While some pastors and theologians have either viewed the bible as a script designed for Act Four or as a means by which modern Christians are able to write the script of Act Four, Wells argues that the bible discusses creation, Israel, and Jesus; Acts One, Two, and Three.  The Church – as Act Four – must read Scripture not as the script for the current Act but as the script from the previous three Acts with the result that the Church must improvise in the current setting.  Just as improvisation in theater plays off of previous events, so too should the church play off of the previous Acts dictated in Scripture and church tradition.  But these actions are not static; they change with the times as the plot unfolds, always connected to the past Acts in the play and also pointing forward to the Act that has yet to come.

Under the principle of improvisation, the Christian – living in Act Four – functions well by planting proper habits, behavior that over-accepts in situations where typical conduct garners either the response of acceptance or blocking.  Most people in any given situation are inclined to accept or block a scenario.  For example, if a stranger gives you a box, taking the box is seen as accepting and refusing the box is seen as blocking.  Yet, a third scenario of overaccepting exists which Wells defines as

“accepting in the light of a larger story” (131).

Wells illustrates the concept of overaccepting by describing a child jumping out of her seat and running onstage to play a piano just as a concert pianist enters the stage to perform.  In this scenario, the pianist could accept the situation and let the child continue to play; the pianist could block the situation by having security escort the child off the stage; or the pianist could overaccept by sitting down on the bench with the child and playing piano with the child (131-132).  In fact, Wells argues,

“Overaccepting imitates the manner of God’s reign.  For God does not block his creation: he does not toss away his original material” (134).

Keeping in line with the theme of improvisation, overaccepting is the way in which Christians best continue the narrative begun in Acts One through Three and ultimately it leads individuals and the church as a whole to the end in Act Five, the eschaton where the lost parts of the narrative are reincorporated and consummated.

In sum, Wells wants individuals to think of ethics not as a question of making the right choice between two opposing actions but as a means by which an individual fosters a disposition capable of making proper decisions, improvising the Christian narrative forward toward Act Five not through blocking and accepting but through overaccepting.

I consider Wells’ improvisational ethic valuable in its application in particular contexts.  More specifically, Wells applies the lens of an improvisational ethic to the hotly contested debate concerning genetically modified (GM) foods.  Wells articulates the reasons both to block and accept GM foods.  On one side, GM foods present the potential answer to world hunger.  On the other side, GM foods contain added chemicals potentially harmful to health possibly an abomination to the world created naturally by God.  In applying his improvisational ethic, Wells sees it fit to neither block nor accept; Wells believes, instead, that overaccepting is the answer.

When one accepts GM foods, he or she places trust in science to solve world problems which are a result of sin instead of placing trust in God to deliver humanity from its perils.  Similarly, an individual denying the use of GM foods forgets that Jesus essentially produces GM foods when he uses five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people.  Instead, Wells points us to the Eucharist as a means by which Christians can overaccept the issues of GM foods.  Wells writes:

The Eucharist is God’s word to the advocates of GM foods because its fellowship challenges the cynicism of their selfish world.  The Eucharist is God’s word to the opponents of GM foods because its sacrifice challenges the naïveté of a world based on humanist assumptions.  Most of all the Eucharist proclaims to all people that there is only one way to save the world – not through more food, not through pure food, but through shared food, the broken bread received from Christ’s body broken on the cross (212).

Wells’ overacceptance of the GM foods dilemma in the form of inviting all people to partake in the Eucharist is a beautiful example of the practical nature by which an improvisational ethic redeems culture and continues the narrative of God without blocking or accepting only part of the story.

-Donovan Richards

Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004)

Practica: Paul, Haircuts, and the Bathroom

November 10th, 2010 § 0 Comments

As Raoul eloquently stated in the previous post, the practicum component of the graduate program provides students with a creative outlet in the process of internalizing the subjects learned quarter by quarter.

I decided to form my spring quarter practica assignment around a memoir – kind of like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. My memoir attempt entailed describing theological principles in a witty manner. In the excerpt below, I give an amusing anecdote hoping to elaborate on a theological argument Paul composes in Philippians.

Paul, Haircuts, and the Bathroom

When I was in a band, I hated haircuts. One might assume that my displeasure toward scissors is related to my desire to look like an unkempt and annually unshowered slob. Let the record state that this account is false. I showered everyday; I swear! Honestly, I refused to get a haircut because I hate sitting through awkward discussions. I would always get a random hair stylist who had more talent snapping gum than cutting hair.

“What do we want to do with your hair today,” she would mumble.

I would respond, “I’m not sure, honestly, I want it to be hip and indie?”

She delightfully proclaims, “Let’s look at a book!”

Whenever you present your hair as an open palette to a stylist, he or she will always return to that mid-nineties salon style book. You know the one I am talking about right, the one with colorful cover? Those poor male models are permanently glued to those worn pages!

Which style should I choose? I could go for the bleached spiky tips. That haircut was the hottest look for junior high students in 1997! I have doubts concerning its indie credibility. Perhaps I could go with a bowl cut and matching cross necklace? Do I have enough confidence to wear a look fifteen years past its due? Not today… but maybe someday? They should really make an annual salon hairstyle book; someone is really being lazy here. Either every stylist was trained in the nineties, or the salon book company went out of business and nobody told the consumers.

Choosing a hairstyle is not even the worst part of a haircut. I would argue that the nastiest, most awful element is enduring the barber-chair discussions. For some reason, stylists feel obligated to strike up a conversation during the cut. Perhaps it is part of their stylist training but the awkwardness of these conversations never ceases to amaze me. I can see the wheels turning as she is trimming my hair. Her thoughts are screaming, “What should I say!? What should I say!? This silence is unbearable! He has gauged ears; maybe we could talk about earrings. My nephew has gauged ears! I’ll tell him how my nephew’s ear lobes are bigger than his head.”

She asks, “I see you have your ears pierced. Did that hurt?”

“Not really. I just took it slow and they are actually smaller than they use to be,” I respond.

Quickly, the stylist exclaims, “Amazing! My nephew pierced his ears and now his earlobes are bigger than his head!”

“Wow. That’s bigger than I would ever go. At that point, he has gone past the point of no return. He’s going to have huge ear lobes until the day he dies,” I add.

Silence. Snip. Snip. Snip. Her mind once again flips through her rolodex of thoughts trying to find another source of conversation. These discussions are extremely awkward.

Tara (my wife) cut my hair for awhile, but she had never cut hair before. She performed her task admirably all things considered. Truthfully, having friends cut your hair is a really smart idea because if it’s a terrible haircut, you can tell everyone who did it; so there’s an added incentive to do a good job when you are cutting your friend’s hair. For this reason, Tara would always freak out when cutting my hair and she should because there is a lot of pressure involved.

One day, Tara finally convinced me to get my haircut with her stylist. I had reservations of course; mainly because I dreaded the inevitable awkward conversation. Yet, the discussion wasn’t so bad. We chatted about her son and her philosophy of parenting. I’ve always been interested in how to parent because it seems like no matter how you parent, children turn out differently. I have one friend who is homeschooling his kids; I have another friend who is sending his child to a liberal-arts preschool. Which child will turn out better? Does the manner in which they are educated even relate to the subjective judgment on how they “turn out?” Probably not. But it is interesting to see the method in which parents try and raise their kids. So we talked about that. It wasn’t awkward. I made recurring haircutting appointments.

In fact, last time Tara’s stylist cut my hair, we talked about poop. I should probably elaborate. We discussed current happenings including my writing of this memoir. She told me how exciting it would be to read things about me. I informed her that the memoir probably won’t be any good because I lack confidence; I’m not funny; etc. I said that I am no David Sedaris. She didn’t know the reference.  Setting aside the sad fact that she had not read David Sedaris, I enlightened her through my favorite David Sedaris story, the one where he clogged a friend’s toilet while dropping the kids off at the pool, or negotiating the release of hostages, you know any of those euphemisms for disposing fecetic tissue. Mr. Sedaris was left with a dilemma, either he could notify the host of the dinner party that the toilet was clogged, or he could take measures into his own hand.

He decided to grab the #2 and throw it out the window.

Tara’s hair stylist found this story very funny. As she took liberties with cutting my hair (I tell her that she is an artist and I am a canvas so she always cuts it however she wants), she proceeded to narrate to me her own poop story. You see, her young son enjoys playing with toys while he sits on the toilet. There are certain times when he accidently drops his toys into his poopy. Of course this makes him scream for mom with a simple request for toy retrieval. I try and imagine myself in that situation. If I were the father of the child, I can’t help but believe that I would practice some tough love with him.

“Sorry son, you either grab that t-rex yourself or you flush.”

I might even symbolically wash my hands in the sink to illustrate that it is not my problem anymore. I doubt he’ll understand the gesture.

Tara’s hair-stylist – being a superior parent – has a better idea. She owns a mechanical hand meant for picking up socks that fall behind the dryer. So when her boy cries out that his precious toy is swimming with the poopies, she comes running with the mechanical hand. In a sense, it brings new perspective to Paul considering all things as crap compared to Christ.

In fact, the ability to stick your hand into a pile of poop is an excellent analogy to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In those days, shame and honor dictated social status. If society honors an individual, his or her followers receive similar exaltation; if society shames an individual, his or her followers are similarly disgraced.  In light of this concept, the context of Philippians becomes apparent: Paul writes attempting to convince his new church plant that his current shame is an honor instead. While the world observes certain items as shameful, Jesus honors Christians who have fallen down the societal shame ladder. In this context, Paul confidently proclaims, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Even death – the most shameful thing that could happen to a person – presents a situation where an individual gains honor in Christ.  Currently, living a Christian life modeled after Jesus is not a recipe for honor. Yet, we as Christians avoid receiving shame, we avoid uncomfortable situations, and we most certainly do not consider these scenarios the calling of God. Perhaps we should open ourselves to the possibility of shame, the inevitable probability of using a mechanical hand in order to search through feces for that small toy, receiving the honor of Jesus in the process.

-Donovan Richards

Paul considering all things “crap” references Philippians 3:8.  In English the verse says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 ESV).  The word “rubbish” in Greek is “skubalon” meaning a stronger word than “crap”.  As mentioned in the body of text, Paul uses such strong language to remind his readers that things people think are honorable are poop and things people think are dishonorable are in fact honorable.

Poem for Practicum – “Victus”

November 8th, 2010 § 0 Comments

“Practicum” is one component of the graduate theological program here at SPU. Basically, the practicum locates the meeting point between what you are learning in the classroom and what you discuss with your mentor. Hopefully, it is taking theory and context and putting your own ideas into practice.

For my practicum, I decided to write poetry. The content is informed by what I learned at the time. Contextually, I envisioned this poem posted on the wall of the worship hall of a church in which I would pastor. The composition itself is a response to William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” which, to me, speaks of the human soul as a deity unto itself neither created by God nor will succumb to any other authority but itself. I somehow came upon the poem during my studies and found it problematic. In fact, I felt that I just needed to write a response to it.

                       Victus

Out from the Light that pierces all,
Word of creation, breath of life;
I exhale thanks for my conquered soul,
To the Living God of Abraham’s knife.

In Crucibles clutch, I cry aloud,
To God, my faith and fear will sing;
My head is bludgeoned, bloodied, bowed
Mirroring the strength of my King.

A child of dust, I shall return
To the One alone who welcomes me;
Love Alive is my hope to earn
“victus”, the victor’s identity.

It matters to sheep to enter by gate,
And to goats, if name is not on the scroll;
Blessed are those who share Steven’s fate,
Woe to the unconquerable soul.

-Raoul Perez

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