Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Special: The Befriended Monster

There's a problem with writing "monster movies": there aren't that many monsters left. It's not that we disbelieve them too much; there's always that "willing suspension of disbelief" that is the entry price for a good story, and we gladly give it. But at this point, we've befriended all the major monsters. Friendly ghosts? That's been done long since; Casper was ages ago, and Nearly-Headless Nick is just one of the more recent entries in the series. Friendly vampires? Twilight has enough of them to make a vampire soap opera. Friendly werewolves? Definitely, Twilight and Harry Potter again have the territory well-covered between Jacob Black, the Wolf pack, and Remus Lupin. The old Adams Family and Munsters were just an early act in a now-expected storyline. Wicked has a sympathetic retelling of the Wizard of Oz's Witch of the West. Even Godzilla isn't that bad, once you understand his motives. (Godzilla as an apocalyptic vengeance on man has some small similarities to the beasties of the Book of Revelation.)

So what do you do when you need a monstrous character? Well, humans have enough monstrous traits, and the other monsters were often projections of our worst selves. So storytellers generally turn to humans for their monsters. Many a story contains a "surprising" revelation that the monster is, after all, human. Environmentalists tend to write stories where humanity or industrialism or capitalism is the monster, or man is the disease that needs to be eradicated. People of a political bent tend to create caricatures of their political opponents and show them as monstrous. Or (based on J.K. Rowling's statements), people she has personally disliked over the years appear in Roman-a-clef format as distasteful characters such as Gilderoy Lockhart, or odious ones like Dolores Umbridge. (Honestly, Lord Voldemort has more a sympathetic backstory than the stand-ins for some people the author once knew.)

But what if -- what if we haven't taken "befriending the monster" quite far enough? What if the human monsters also could be understood? What if, once you understand where they're coming from, they're not quite as monstrous as we supposed? What if prejudice has blinded us, or a personal bad experience has tainted our thoughts? Why is it, again, we're so certain we shouldn't listen and seek understanding?

Once we listen to "the monster" and try to understand, the monster tends to become more human. And if we decide not to understand or listen ... well, it's easy to miss the scarier point of the "surprise" revelation that the monster is human: the monster might be us.

So here's to Halloween. It's the night where we pass out lots of candy to all the ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches, dragons -- and neighbors -- that we might see. And for that, it may well be my favorite holiday.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself"

"It is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself" - Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III Chapter XV
When we talk about the question, "Is there anything that God cannot do?", sooner or later we come to the question: Are there things that are genuinely, absolutely impossible? For example, a thing cannot be both a triangle and a square; that is self-contradictory, and so it is impossible. If something is impossible, then even God cannot do it, and it is not considered any kind of shortcoming or limit to God. Instead, it is considered a property of reality: a thing is itself, and not something else.

Maimonides says it's "impossible" for God to produce a being like Himself. This is based on his assumptions about what it means to be God. But would a Christian share those assumptions? We'll leave aside, for the moment, any specific question of the identity of any other being or beings that might (or might not) be like God, and instead consider the hypothetical question: If it were possible, what it would mean?

So: Can God "produce" a being like Himself? God Himself has not been produced, so the very fact that the other being is "produced" would mean that this other being is, in some ways, not exactly like God. And the differences do not end there, differences that come simply from the fact of being produced rather than self-existing. In philosophy, God is sometimes spoken of as a Necessary Being, or as the Necessary Being. But for any being that God produced, that being would probably not be Necessary in the same way.

But imagine if God did produce a being like Himself in other respects. If God produced another being like God -- inasmuch as another can be like, while being produced, and not in the same way Necessary -- what would it mean for the concept of God, and what it means to be God? If He is no longer entirely alone, if He is now capable of fellowship and relationship -- then God has expanded what it means to be God. Has he altered the equation of the universe? Are fellowship and companionship now part of what it means to exist? Has he changed the foundation, whether the idea of Necessity has such a key place in our world and in our understanding of it, since he has done something so foundational that is so clearly not Necessary?

If God were to produce another being like Himself, and if the point is fellowship and love -- if the point is that it is not impossible to be like Him -- then that may alter what it means to exist in our universe, to be a part of our universe. It may also alter what it means to understand our universe.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Controversies in the church: The Basis of Doctrine

I have long wanted to return to the series on controversies in the church, but have reached a point where I do not know both sides equally well, having never seen some of them from the inside. This post is an attempt to move forward all the same, with a simplified format that makes some progress possible. The hope is that, if readers comment or later reading expands my knowledge, more could be added. 

The controversy: The Basis of Doctrine

One of the largest controversies in the Western church -- at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics -- is the question of how the church forms its beliefs and teachings. On the Roman Catholic side, the view is that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching. On the Protestant side, the view is that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. In the earliest decades of the church there is very little difference between those views because the earliest decades were marked by the apostles and those who learned directly from them. But as the voice of the apostles faded from living memory and was preserved in writing, the two roads diverged.

The basics:

Roman Catholics

(From the outset I'd like to be clear: I would be glad for suggestions from Roman Catholic readers if there is any way in which I can be more accurate about their teaching.) On the Roman Catholic view that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching, it follows that the Church has the key position in deciding what is taught and how it is interpreted. The Roman Catholic church claims the continuing authority to develop teachings, and to teach them with the same authority as Scripture: the authority of the church.


There is some variety among the Protestant groups about the exact role of Scripture, but in general there is agreement that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. This is not to say that all books were written by apostles, but that all books were written in the earliest church and were faithful to what the apostles, still contemporaries, were teaching. The church has the duty to remain faithful to what the apostles taught, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.

The weaknesses:

Roman Catholics

Rome does claim the authority to go beyond what is written in the Bible. But does the Church have authority to go against something in the Bible? The question becomes more interesting if we view the Bible as a record of what the Church taught. If the Church wrote the Bible as a teaching instrument, then why would there come a time when the Church needed to teach something different? If the authority for the Bible is the Church, and if the authority for the later teachings is the Church, then how and when and why did the teachings of the Church change?

There are other kinds of questions too, that involve either questions of church practice or questions of actual historical events: Since Peter was married and is considered the first Pope, why can't other popes be married? Or if nobody ever asked Mary whether she remained a virgin until the end of her life, on what basis is there a teaching involving that?


The most obvious Achilles' heel of the Protestants is the doctrine of the Trinity. While it is easy enough to find verses that support the idea of the Trinity from the Bible, and it is common to extrapolate the Trinity from those verses, the fact remains that the Trinity is nowhere explicitly taught in the same way as things like the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. If the Trinity is accepted without being explicitly taught, why not other things?

Another, less obvious issue again has to do with questions of changing doctrine. Take, for example, the previous discussion of controversies over creation and evolution: many Protestants have decided that it is a mistake to believe in a literal six-day creation. Is that "literal six-day creation" to be considered a mistake in the Bible, or a mistake in the early church's interpretation? On the view that it is a mistake of some kind, how does someone hold that view without savaging those who hold to the ancient interpretation (or, as those groups would say, hold to the plain meaning of the text)? Is there any way to come to an authoritative agreement over interpretations of the Bible, if the authority resides in the Bible or the apostles or God but not in the church? Is there any way to preserve unity with those who disagree?

Common Problems

In the early years of the Christian church, the two views were not so different: whether the Bible teaches what the church teaches, or whether the church teaches what the Bible teaches. At this point, while Roman Catholics and Protestants have gone down their different roads, we are both meeting the same kinds of problems. Some problems have to do with changing teachings: the question of whether we should change, and on what authority. Other problems have to do with claiming that there is an unchanging basis, in the face of these kinds of changes. And the question of making a change is a question that both groups face: if we don't have some unchanging basis, then what defines us?

As Christians, we are ultimately Christ's people. But can we agree on what that means for what we teach?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dark Nights of the Soul

I cry out, O God, but you do not answer. I stand up, but you merely look at me. (Job 30:20)
It's easy to understand why Job had a "dark night of the soul". He had enjoyed many blessings: prosperity and family and health -- and respect. The blessings were all taken away. He suffered punishments or curses or destructions that he had not deserved. His accuser had wondered: Had Job only loved God because of his easy life? So every shred of ease and comfort was taken away from him. But there are those who have easy lives who still have the same despair:
Meaningless, meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless! (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
This is often thought to have been written by King Solomon. He had wealth, power, ease, prestige, home, family. He had achievements to his credit. His name and reputation would long outlast him. He had every worldly blessing. And he found them all meaningless.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
Now that may be the most famous of all the dark verses of the Bible. King David may have voiced it first, but most strikingly, Jesus voiced it from the cross.

When we don't talk about the "dark nights", I think we do ourselves and each other a disservice. We think we're alone. We don't realize that the dark nights may actually be where we have the most company.
A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, on the Messiah to come)

(For those wondering -- the occasion for writing is a friend at church who pulled me aside this morning because he has been going through a season of dark nights. And he knows that I've struggled with that too, so he knows he can talk to me when he is going through it himself.)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: Introduction to Revelation

How do you introduce teens to a book like Revelation? We covered things like:

Basic orientation

  1. There is not complete agreement on what the book of Revelation means. There may never be complete agreement on what it means during the course of human history. 
  2. The book of Revelation was not accepted in the earliest days of the church. One reason was its use by various "doomsday" groups. It's necessary to take peoples' predictions of the end times with a grain of salt. 
  3. It is symbolic, and to some extent mysterious. It is presented as a vision, and not everything in that vision is explained. 
  4. It is a very visual book. (After like the third time that a keen insight had been offered by one or the other of the two brothers in my class who are manga artists, and a similar number of "puzzled" episodes from the verbal-thinkers, I pointed out: because the book is largely filled with images and imagery, the visual thinkers have the edge here over the verbal thinkers. That their usual roles in class may be reversed while we study such a visual book, as the people who think in pictures may well understand faster than the people who think in words.)

Introduction to Number Symbols

Asked them to name symbolic numbers in the Bible. We discussed 3, 7, 12, and 40. (We'll get around to 4 and 10 later; this is was meant as an introduction to the idea of symbolic numbers.)

  • Examples of 3: Trinity, "Holy, Holy, Holy": 3 as symbolic of God and holiness. 
  • Examples of 7: Sabbath. (Also: sabbath year, Jubilee, 70x70 of the wait for the Messiah; 70x7 of Jesus' forgiveness). The theme of blessing, rest, forgiveness. Also the sevenfold Spirit of God. 
  • Examples of 12: Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve apostles. The basic idea is the people of God. 
  • Examples of 40: 40 days and nights of rain, 40 years in the wilderness (Israelites), 40 days in the wilderness (Jesus). The theme of purification, judgment, repentance, dedication. 

Mentioned to them that some things were also in numeric code. They were all familiar with the simple children's code where 1=A, 2=B, 3=C and so forth. Mentioned that there were parts where a similar code seemed to be in use for the identity of the big villain of the piece, whose number was 666. That there was a "letters for numbers" scheme in Hebrew, and in Greek, and in Latin -- which makes it even trickier to figure out what the "666" may have originally meant.

Exercise: The Letters to the Churches

Because we had done an awful lot of talking, we did something participatory next, which meant not taking the text completely in order. Each student was assigned one of the letters to the 7 churches to read silently, and as they read the letter, they were to look for two things:

  1. How is Jesus described in the letter? Look at the beginning of the letter where it describes who it is from. 
  2. What is promised to the people who hang in there through the hardships and overcome? Look towards the end of the letter where it says, "To him who overcomes, I will ...". 

We then went around the room twice: first, each person said how Jesus was described in their letter. Mention that the way Jesus is introduced in each letter is related to the message that each individual church is receiving. (For instance, in one letter where Jesus is described as more angry-looking than others, the text of the letter includes that the church needs some serious correction, kind of a "kicking-tail-and-taking-names" kind of letter.)

Next, each person related the promise that was given in their letter. Afterwards, asked for comments about peoples' favorite promise.

Images and Concepts from the Letters

We spent some time discussing the images and concepts from the readings:

  • manna (God's providence, lasting food, Jesus as bread of heaven)
  • tree of life (eternal life)
  • being blotted out of the book of life (judgment)
  • double-edged sword (usually refers to God's word. Sword as a defense for the good and a danger for the evil -- both between people and within ourselves)
  • Hades (Greek origins and borrowed here, land of the dead where people were waiting for the end of time)
  • Second Death (wait on that one, don't want too many spoilers for the end of the book)

Here the keen contributions from the visual thinkers were the plainest. We also talked about how images can mean more than one thing, that in some ways images can carry more meanings than words. With words, sometimes we try to be precise and mean exactly one thing. With images -- and the images used here all have a long and rich history -- they'll find that one image carries all the meanings of the thing itself, and all the histories where it has ever appeared, along with it. The use of images gives the book multiple layers of meanings from the same verses. Just because you have found one meaning in an image, you may not have found them all.

Introduction to the Vision

We went back to the earlier part of the book and read the introduction to the vision. They all picked up on how many things mentioned in the introduction had also been brought up again in the letters. Some discussion of the "angels of the churches" and different ways that could be understood. How a lot of the imagery -- like the robe and the sash and the lamps -- went back to Moses and the tabernacle. How, as the lessons continue, they will often see images that have come up before in other places in the Bible.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Just for fun: Gracepoint versus Broadchurch

I made a few predictions before Harry Potter book 7 was released, and I got more right than wrong. So I'll try again here.

I am an unapologetic devotee of the groundbreaking, profoundly moving British crime drama series Broadchurch. It is the mostly deeply and thoroughly human crime drama I've ever seen. As Fox kicks off the official first episode of the American remake this week, I plan on watching that as well. (David Tennant is reprising the lead, though without his usual Scottish accent. The rest of the characters have been recast.) They say there's a different ending, hinting at a different killer. Here are my thoughts on the likely differences in the two shows.

Warning: While there aren't full-fledged "spoilers" in here for either series, there is some open speculation here about "whodunnit" in the American version which I have obviously not seen yet, and that does contain some information about who didn't do it in the prior British version. So don't read if you don't even want hints.

There are some things that they simply had to change if they were going to do an American remake. The dad's best friend won't be named Nigel, and probably nobody will poach pheasants or own a crossbow. Those things just wouldn't work if the story were set in the U.S. It was also predictable that the cast would have a little more racial variety over here, since the U.S. has more racial variety than the U.K. (The crime affects the Solano family in the U.S., where it was the Latimer family in the U.K.)

Other things that probably wouldn't happen in a U.S. remake:

  • The lady detective crying so often. That's not simply against some PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed; it's also fairly unrealistic for how an American lady detective would handle herself in the professional world. 
  • The minister being portrayed positively. Most U.S.-based shows, if they portray Christians at all, portray them at least somewhat negatively. Think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, or Angela Martin from The Office. 
  • The lady detective having huge and glaring blind spots that compromise her professional judgment, as part of the plot. While blind spots could happen to anyone in the real world, it's somewhat against PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed on TV or in film, especially if their blind spot relates to them being somewhat emotional and naive. (As we have already seen in the previews for Gracepoint, in the U.S. version the lady detective does not get passed over for a promotion at the hands of a lady supervisor, but at the hands of a male supervisor, and does not react by pouting in a bathroom stall.)

As it affects the crime and "whodunnit" though:

There were only 3 strong suspects in the British version (er, ok, 2 strong suspects and the surprise of who really did it). If they're going to change "whodunnit" for the American version, you can bet they won't change both the race of the actor to non-white and then make him the criminal too; that's not likely to happen. So my bet is that, in the U.S. version, "whodunnit" will be the other remaining suspect: the Christian minister. (The main pro -- and the main con -- of that choice are the same thing: given some of the undertones of the crime, hanging it on a preacher or priest would be predictable.) But another con: dramatically, the preacher is a far weaker choice for "whodunnit" than was made in the British version, where the killer was known and trusted by quite a few people, which led to some amazing reactions as the town realized who had actually committed the crime and how they had trusted the killer. In the British version, the innocent-but-suspected vicar is somewhat of an outsider. So while it would have been shocking if he had done it, still not to the extent as when the true killer was revealed. If they want to keep the absolute thunderstruck reaction of having known and thoroughly trusted the killer, if it's the preacher then they'll have to make him more of a part of the action, or risk losing all the drama when people realized that they knew the person who did it. I actually hope they keep the original identity of the killer in the U.S. remake. Some of the character arcs and relationships were deeply affected by the killer's identity.

So that's my best guess (and wishlist) for how Gracepoint might unfold.