Thursday, April 28, 2005

The fantastic world of RSS readers

If your list of blogs to consult seems to become more and more difficult to control, you might want to think about investing a little bit of time in setting up an RSS reader. RSS stands either for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. Simply put, a website can choose to broadcast or syndicate its content; an RSS reader tracks these syndications down and alerts you when a new entry has been made on the website. This works for blogs but also for news and sports sites.

For Mac users, you can either upgrade to Mac OS X: Tiger which includes a new version of Safari with RSS capabilities built in, or you can download NetNewsWire Lite; it's free but you have to scroll all the way down on the page to find the download link. PC users can use Mozilla's e-mail client Thunderbird as an RSS reader. There are several options out there, but these are a few I might recommend.

Once you download the program, you just look for the address upon which the site is syndicating. For blogspot sites, just add /atom.xml to any address and voila. For others, you might have to do some hunting. Happy blogging!

The banning of books, sadly, alive and well

Fearing the so-called "homosexual agenda," a senator in Alabama has introduced a bill which would ban the purchase of new books for the state's libraries which were authored by homosexuals or included homosexual characters in their stories. Read the story here. But the good senator assures us that this is not censorship: "I don't look at is as censorship. I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children." Right . . .

Somehow the very basic definition of "censorship" has eluded this elected official. Censorship remains censorship even if done with "good" intentions. Nevertheless, the senator's intentions here are laughable. The article mentions that for a while the bill included Shakespeare within the gaze of its homophobic wrath. Now, I know about the rumors that have circulated about the bard, but, honestly, where will this bill draw the line? The bill is now written so that "classics" will not be banned. Presumably the subtle (and not so subtle) homosexuality of Homeric epic is acceptable but not Alice Walker's haunting prose in The Color Purple. What about Walt Whitman? Adrienne Rich? Seemingly, whether a work is a classic or not is in the eye of the beholder.

I think this is precisely where the more sinister side of such a move lies. This has little to do with protecting young minds but with inoculating a public institution from anything which might verge upon the offensive, with anything which might ruffle the feathers of the high-minded moral police. This act is not about protection but control and that control would stifle imagination, compassion, and the willingness to see the world through another's perspective, three things from which the world would benefit today. And let us not forget what signal this sends to young women and men struggling to form their sexual identity. Not only will they be isolated and alone among their peers, but if the senator has his way, they would be left adrift without even an imaginary interlocutor to reflect and share their struggles to form a healthy sexual identity.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

New book on the shelf

I just picked up the novel Gilead today thanks to Millinerd's glowing recommendation. Has anyone else read the novel? Those of you in ministry or headed that way might find it particularly apropos.

The sad lessons of "Justice Sunday"

In a profoundly arrogant political stance, our good friends on the Christian right this last Sunday night showed their true colors. In my recent--and naive--past, I had hoped that religion could play a more significant part in our political discourse. The beliefs we hold, the various ways we structure the world, our ethics: these are the core of just policies intended to better human life. However, political discourse has deteriorated into a facile bifurcation. One is either a rabid, intolerant conservative or a weak-minded, idealistic liberal; a God-hater or a true believer; rational and thoughtful or deceived by faith and thus foolish. What has happened?

Perhaps we can begin to place some blame on the vapid ethos of marketing which now pervades political discourse. Zinging debates sell while nuanced and fair discussions cause us all to snooze. Perhaps we can begin to place some blame on our pastors and churches who too often fear a congregation who questions and doubts. But ultimately the fault lies with all of us, with the silent majority of Christians who permit extremists on both sides to represent us.

I still hold some hope that religion can play a productive and enriching part in our political discourse. The narrow-minded efforts of pure secularists to expunge the public square of matters of faith is blind, inept, and impotent. Equally so is the narrow-minded effort to place the public square in the midst of pews and a single authoritative pulpit.

For more thoughts on "Justice Sunday," check out the Mainstream Baptist blog.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Harry Potter and Left Behind at FilmChat

FilmChat continues to deliver wonderfully incisive postings on the intersection of film, pop culture, and religion. Two of the latest might be of interest to many of you.

The first article deals with the symbolism of the number 7 and its overlapping influence on the composition of the Narnia books as well as Harry Potter. He then closes the posting with a nice riposte against all the Harry Potter haters out there. Check it out here.

The second posting provocatively argues that the Left Behind series is nothing less than "evangelical pornography." Hmm, that might raise a bit of ire out there. These guys didn't sell millions of copies for no reason, but I think that the post starts to answer the question as to why they were so successful. Check it out here. And apparently, not even the second coming of Christ can stop these two from raking in even more dough . . . um, I mean, writing more books. The prequel is now in stores.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The power of the internet or an empty gesture?

Drama continues to percolate amidst the graduates of my alma mater. My previous posting on the changes in OBU's policy on sexuality are apparently only a symptom of a much deeper disaffection. The recent firing of the public relations director due to his public criticism of a significant church in the small town of Shawnee (read about it here) along with enrollment and retention issues going back several years have prompted the following website:

Following the link will bring you to an online petition asking for President Mark Brister's resignation. At last check, eleven signatures have been added but only five have chosen not to remain anonymous. Also unfortunate is the fact that the rationale behind this democratic move is not clearly enunciated. For those of us on the fringe of the OBU loop, information is severely lacking. While I too have been concerned with the more restrictive administrative moves made over the last few years as well as the reduced emphasis on the unified studies program, I am not sure yet whether I feel comfortable signing this petition. What do other OBU alum think?

Beyond the debate over Brister's administrative success lies the question of whether such efforts can accomplish their stated goals. Can anonymous declarations carry the force needed to engender change? Can an online petition collect the necessary political and economic clout? Perhaps the goals of the petition-makers are much more humble. What this petition may achieve is the slow eye-opening of alums to the changes occurring at their alma mater and that may be half the battle.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

On your comments

To those of you who have so kindly left comments on my blog, I extend my sincere thanks . . . and also apologies. I recently installed a new system for collecting comments on this blog which unfortunately left old comments in the oblivion of cyberspace. I have done my best to recover them, but I am at a loss at this point. So, please try out the new comments system, and let me know what you think. Thanks.

What's missing from Harry's world?

Since I first entered the world of Hogwarts and Muggles, I have been fascinated with the tales of Harry Potter. For those of you who haven't had a chance to enter this fantastic world fiction, my suggestion is not to dismiss the books as simple infantile fantasy. Something much deeper occurs in these books as Harry faces the consequences of decisions and events that far preceded his birth; even more, he has to grapple with the battle of good and evil within himself. Rowling is truly a gifted storyteller. And while the movies have generally been disappointing, the latest film directed by the gifted Alfonso Cuaron reflects the depth of imagination and thought Rowling has poured into her work.

Nevertheless, I wish I could sit down with Rowling one day just try to understand one missing aspect of Harry's world: religion. While myth and history are intertwined in the stories, the only oblique reference to religion is in the annual celebration of a strictly secular Christmas event; it functions much more as a winter break than a holiday in the strictest sense of the word. So how would a wizard perceive a religious claim? There is certainly a sense of mystery and a clear tension between good and evil in the books but nothing explicitly religious. Could a witch be a Christian, a Muslim, or an atheist? Do wizards on account of their power lack the need to take a position on theology?

I would guess that Rowling would answer that religion simply is unneeded in her telling of the story, and I might agree. Nevertheless, my curiosity would be unsatiated, and I would wonder if the story would reverberate even more in my mind if theology or something like theology were a part of this fantastic world. Or perhaps, the presence of Christians among the wizarding world would only bolster the phobic positions of some who see these books as enticing intoxicants which draw the reader closer to the dark world.

For another perspective on what may be lacking in Harry's world, see this fascinating article on the dearth of the fine arts in the storyline. It comes from the FilmChat blog, one of my new favorites over the last few weeks.

The Schiavo legacy

ABPNews recently reported that Florida Judge George Greer, who ordered the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, recently resigned his membership from one of the largest and most conservative SBC churches in Florida. Was it an act of personal moral conviction? Actually, the pastor of the church virtually asked him to leave the congregation having written in the baptist state paper that the Judge's act was tantamount to murder. For Pastor Willy Rice, Greer's resignation appeared to be the "biblical course" to take.

In my mind, the fall-out from this political and personal tragedy is only beginning. I am not absolutely sure if we have all realized the lengths that the Florida legislature considered in order to intervene in this case. They actually pondered passing a law that would forbid families from removing feeding tubes unless a living will explicitly stated the patient's wishes. Even though I am not exactly a conservative when it comes to government, this intrusion into the most personal and excruciating decision a family can make is disturbing.

Where is this all heading? We will have to see how the political tremors eventually settle. I worry though that what was once a painful personal decision will only be complicated by political grandstanding in favor of a very narrow political interest. Andrew Sullivan has some excellent comments on this issue.

Perhaps most disturbing was the political grandstanding from one side of the aisle with virtual silence punctuating the other. I grew very weary of the ludicrous comparisons of this case with both the Holocaust and the crucifixion of Christ. I grew very weary of the vitriolic attacks of a man completing his wife's wishes. I grew very weary of the political manipulation of two parents who had lost so much. I grew the most weary that people who opposed this political circus kept their mouths firmly shut.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Sexuality at a baptist college

While some churches find themselves divided over the issue of homosexuality, others are still debating the role of women in the church and in the pulpit. Both debates ultimately come down to a question of hermeneutics. How do we read and interpret the scriptures for our time? How do we parse culturally-conditioned statements that no longer apply to us and "universal" commands that apply to all people and at all times? Is a biblical position that resembles the latter even possible? Finally, how do our own experiences inform our reading of scripture?

In light of these crucial hermeneutical questions, I was surprised to come across the following statement in an OBU press release announcing the development of a new policy on sexuality:
The five-paragraph policy on human sexuality states that it is a “community expectation that OBU students, faculty, and staff will neither engage in nor promote understandings of sexuality that contradict biblical standards.”
The statement disturbs me on several fronts. First, it is so vague as to be impotent. How does one draw a line between "promotion" and "discussion?" On a hermeneutical level, I wonder who determines the contours of a "biblical standard." Whose authority will make this policy relevant? Second, the statement is so vague as to be dangerous and harmful to the academic ethos I found in my years at OBU. For the same reason that the policy is impotent, it could become a destructive tool for institutional power. Academic freedom demands that even the most deep-seated belief be exposed to critique and appraisal. Otherwise, belief ossifies into a dogma that refuses to admit the limits of our understanding as creature and not Creator.

On a pastoral level, I become increasingly concerned that the church is turning its back on students struggling with issues of sexuality. Even those who hold that homosexuality is a sin must admit that the struggles which emerge from the definition of the sexual self are incredibly arduous. For an institution of higher education to take such a hostile posture towards the discussion of a painful topic reflects a blind arrogance bordering on delinquent indifference.

I worry that the school which shaped me to think critically and with compassionate acumen should embrace such a vaguely composed statement. Fortunately, there are voices out there resisting such change. Consider also the experience of this OBU student.

The unfortunate side of virginity pledges

I grew up along with the increasing prevalence of virginity pledges amongst young Christian people. True Love Waits was a true phenomenon among my Christian cohort in high school and college. Unfortunately, as the church tragically tends to do, the gospel message has been too easily diluted and distorted.

A recent study concluded that virginity pledges actually increase the likelihood that young people will engage in dangerous sexual activity; additionally, they don't so much diminish the likelihood that young people will remain virgins until marriage but that they will wait a little longer to join their sexually-active peers. Something is seriously wrong with the church's efforts to educate young people and to help them develop a healthy sexual identity. Ignoring the topic only exacerbates the problem. Apparently, virginity pledges are having a similar effect.

Although the topic of virginity may emerge in youth group meetings because of these efforts, the wider topic of teen sexuality remains repressed. The complex facets of sexuality have been subsumed to a single sexual act. Virginity pledges provide a black-and-white response to a question that evokes many a shade of grey. While sexual intercourse is labeled sinful for unmarried people, sexual intimacy in all its forms is not discussed; young people are left to their own devices (in other words, hormones and a brain still in the early stages of moral reasoning) to distinguish between acceptable levels of sexual intimacy.

I think that the gospel message is being lost amidst our repressed sexual mores. As Americans, we are generally uncomfortable with the topic of sex. Even more and perhaps a good source for further reflection, American notions of sexuality are coded in a gendered mode in such a way as to lay the burden of purity nearly solely upon the shoulders of women. Mix in a culture soaked with immature and titillating sexuality, and you have a potently dangerous concoction. How can we best communicate with our young people both the joyful grace of human sexuality and the need for them to protect their bodies from disease and their emotions from potentially destructive damage?