Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Importance of Symbols Part 2

    In a previous post I mentioned how glad I am that we have widespread literacy and scholarly bible study to keep us connected to the intellectual truths of Christianity. I rejoice in how everyone can have direct access to theology. In how our access to various media can allow everyone’s ideas to be evaluated and critiqued. But I think this luxury has pulled us too much in that direction. Because in the bible I also see God sometimes using elements like
narrative and symbolism to introduce people to his message. I think in some cases instead of diluting the message the additional narrative or symbolic elements can make the message more memorable and relatable.
I was reading The Lord's Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes and I enjoyed it alot. But I did notice not exactly a defect but what I felt was an imbalance. This book is from the Baptist perspective, and while a lot of time was spend on the augments for the primary significance of communion being symbolic (against transubstantiation and related) comparatively little time was spent on the symbolism itself. Now this is a scholarly work so it’s appropriate to focus on concepts and the reality of ideas. However the Lord’s Supper is a very important practice. And I think the importance is in the symbolism. That importance should be overriding enough to make some room for exploring and reveling in the symbolism. I think sometimes our focus is so intellectual that, having affirmed the intellectual truth that the meaning is symbolic, we then don’t know what to do with that symbol.
I liked Math in school and there was a certain joke I really like:  There was a chemist a  physicist and a mathematician and an experimenter want to know which is which. He sets up a lab with some papers on fire in a trash can on the lab bench. He sends the men in one by one. This is the mathematician.
photo by Rizzo183
The first two men just grab a beaker of water and dump it in the trash can, putting the fire out. but when the last man comes in he grabs a piece of chalk, quickly calculates the energy released by the oxidation of the hydrocarbons in the paper, the heat conductivity of the metal trash can, and the latent heat of vaporization of water, gets a calibrated pipet and squirts in the exact amount of water needed to extinguish the fire but leave the trash can perfectly dry afterwards. This is the chemist. But the experimenter still needs to distinguish between the physicist and the mathematician. So he sets up the lab again, but this time puts the trash can with the burning paper on the floor. The first man still gabs a beaker of water and dumps it into the trash can. But the next man takes some asbestos gloves and picks the trash can up and puts it on the lab bench. He then leaves, having reduced the problem to one previously solves.
In abstract pursuits you want to boil information into a known fact or an applicable result. But there is more in a symbol or a parable than just a  fact or an application. It can also convey an intuition a feeling or an attitude. I think our modern culture sometimes doesn’t really absorb and value, and even critique those things as it should.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Importance of Symbols Part 1

photo by Garitan

I’ve been preparing to be part of a short term mission trip to the Philippines this November. One of the things that has really hit me is how different discipleship is when a majority of the people don’t read. Of course I knew intellectually about situations where this is the case, but all my practical experience is with the situation where bible study is right up there with prayer as a fundamental part of living the Christian life. A person who couldn’t read well was a special case who got extra individualized attention and special aids to allow them to fit into this paradigm.
But in the poorer areas of the Philippines, it’s those who can read well enough to study on their own who are the exception. So I’ve been thinking more about the importance of symbols and how they allow us to interact with new ideas.
One thing it has done is given me a new appreciation for how the medieval church used art. My reaction to this post really crystallized it for me, how different our relationship to sacred art is. We don’t need art to convey the basics of the story to us because we can always read it. I really started thinking about the implications of art as a primary teaching tool. Back then the skill of the artist was very important in making something that everyone could interpret easily. The art would also be very individual. In an era before photocopiers a specific visual version of a story might be unique to a painting or an area.
A can also see how easy it would be to fall into message drift. To focus on a martyr with an easily visually identifiable symbol rather than someone harder to make identifiable. I can totally see why there are more pictures of Catherine of Alexandra and her wheel than of Clement of Alexandria. But theological concepts and the mysteries Christ shared with us can also be hard to illustrate. I’m glad we have widespread literacy now to help the church hold onto these more firmly.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

mini-review: 10 Sacred Cows in Christianity That Need to be Tipped

10 Sacred Cows in Christianity That Need to be Tipped is a quick but thought provoking read. It takes a look at some common tendencies and temptations in the modern church and a basic presentation of why they are unbiblical and undesirable.

I did like the boldness issues that are very common and easy to fall into and the way the simplicity of the argument focused attention on the problem without giving the reader an opportunity to be distracted by side issues.

I didn’t like how the book attaches all attempts to take into consideration the human desires for comfort, or familiarity or excitement. While I agree that this should never be the primary consideration nor should these considerations be a constant indulgence, there may be a time and a place for these to be a secondary consideration.

What this book is not:

  •  A rebuttal of all the possible arguments and excuses for the practices criticized
  •  An accusation of any particular person or group as having the criticized practices. (It’s an invitation for the readers to examine their own consciences, not disparage others.)
  • A detailed road map of what to do instead. 

But it isn’t trying to be any of these things. This isn’t a book that does your all thinking for you, but one that gives you a shove away from complacency.

There are certain things that are foundation about the church that don't change through time. But having that foundation makes it necessary and all the more possible and exciting to examine traditions we may have fall into out of habit, or ideas we just took for granted without examining fully. God is continuing to use his Holy Spirit to shape the church and there is always more of his love, his grace, and his holiness to learn about.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


In this blog on Cathedrals of Worship the phrase caught my eye “Is such opulence really about bringing glory to God, or rather is it designed to direct praise toward the famous architects and the wealthy patrons who bring it into being?How is it worshipful to waste so much on a mere building? Couldn't the resources be better used in the kind of work actually commanded in the Bible? Don't such spaces actually elevate worldly values (like wealth and fame and physical beauty) over heavenly ones?” The first thing that drew my attention was the words physical beauty. Last Sunday my church’s sermon had been on Revelation 21 the new heaven and the new earth.  The sermon focused mainly on what would be considered the “spiritual” aspects of this promise of heaven, mentioning in passing that we couldn't be sure of the exact substance when John described seeing gold and precious stones. But reading the words of revelation I can’t help but see the physical beauty being ascribed to the new creation of God.
                I wouldn't call physical beauty un-heavenly. I would only see it so when it begins to distract from or take the place of God, rather than pointing to and serving its creator. All wealth and all fame properly belong to God and in that context they are good. They only become un-heavenly because we generally only encounter them uneasily misplaced in the possession of humans and human organizations. But the taint is in how these things are possessed and used, rather than the things themselves.

I think in the modern age, as in any age, it’s easy to attribute the consistency in encounters to the things we’re encountering, forgetting the commonality might also be us. I think it is helpful to look back, not to the Renascence  tradition that modern thought comes from but to the middle-ages tradition whose lingering momentum have the Renascence building cathedrals. It was a time when great resources were often devoted to building great cathedrals. But it can be a frustrating time for art historians because many of the great architectural achievements are anonymous. I think there would have been a special meaning to life to have lived in those times. Imagine being a simple stone mason who got to spend your life creating a physical object that was going to be consecrated to the worship of God. Yes, the various funding sources that paid your wages had a part to play in the drama of worship, but it was fitting that Christ’s bride the church should be respected and even secular authority be accommodated as allowed for in God’s plan.
                I think we can miss the value in beauty, in a good report, in work worth of wages because our culture habitually uses and references these things in casual and debasing ways. We’ll miss a great deal if we don’t look past our culture to see the value these things were made with.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

the trick is to be bored...

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved on to another one. instead of giving up reading altogether .... The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise.
                                                   - Nassim Nicolas Taleb

I think this is why I can average around 100 books a year despite still have effects from dyslexia.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The long ending of Mark

I've been listening to this podcast, NT Pod extended 5, which includes a discussion about the long ending of mark. This is Mark 16:9-20, which is missing from some of our earliest manuscripts. Most scholars this these verse are a later addition to the gospel and I would agree that it is a distinct possibility.
13th century manuscript
 of long ending
But Mark 16:8 seems an odd ending to a gospel because while the empty tomb has been discovered, the resurrection appearances, which are such an important part of other early Christian accounts of Jesus, has not yet been covered. And the fact is that if it did originally end at verse 8, someone felt it needed more and added verses 9-20 fairly early in the history of the church.
I've heard three explanations advanced as to why Mark might have ended at verse 8. The first is that originally there was some other ending, but that it got torn off and lost, presumably when there was only one accessible copy. (The problem with this is that if the earliest copy was a scroll then the end would be on the inside, most protected and least likely to be lost.) The second is that the writer was interrupted before he could finish his composition, perhaps by being taken away to be martyred, which seems improbably melodramatic. And the last I've heard from other is that it is deliberately enigmatic so as leave you asking questions, which seems rather post-modern for an ancient author.
But another explanation has occurred to me which I find a fascinating possibility. So I want to write it out here and take a look at its plausibility. This idea starts with one of the scenarios for the circumstances under which Mark was written.
In the Apostolic fathers we have a few snippets of the early stories and traditions about how the gospels were composed. There is this story about how the Gospel of Mark was written were Peter is preaching in Rome and Mark is there as his translator or amanuensis. People come to Mark and ask for a record of Peter's preaching and what is produced is the Gospel of Mark. Peter finds out about this either while Mark is in the middle of writing this or after it is already finished and either approves it retroactively or just says nothing giving it implied approval.
Many scholars dismiss the patristics witness, but many also endorse the criteria of embarrassment. And the patristics authors do seem to find Peter's late approval embarrassing so it seems unlikely that they are entirely making up the story and I think it makes sense to consider what it might mean if the story is generally true.
When Peter first comes into Rome, this huge city with a small, new group of Christians who may never have talked to an apostle before, what is the first thing he is going to preach on? What is his best tool for making new converts and generally convincing people that following a executed convict from the sticks is not crazy? I'm convinced it was his personal testimony of meeting the resurrected Jesus in his new transformed body. It would make perfect sense for him to have preached on that first, probably repeating it several times in different venues, recruiting a group to come together and listen to his longer lecture series, "My memories of life with Jesus." This would mean that everyone attending the lectures would have already heard the resurrection appearances, many several times.
When someone came to Mark with the idea of making a document to help the people attending these lectures remember them, It might have been very natural to start at the beginning of more or less chronological part of Peter's tale, especially if this was proposed after the lectures were already underway.
Peter, knowing that his audience had already hear the resurrection appearance stories, might not feel the need to repeat those appearance at the end of his lectures. And I can see Mark, perhaps already uncertain about an unapproved project, thinking this is something only intended for local distribution, not adding the appearances on his own initiative. Later, when it ended up being circulated more generally people would have realized that the wider audience needed more explanation of the resurrection appearances and added the various additional material. This to me is the most satisfying explanation of why Mark might have originally ended at such an awkward point.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why gay marriage might help the church but hurt the country Part 2

So last time I talked about how gay marriage might help the church. But I'm still politically against gay marriage because I think it will likely hurt the state. Now if the possible good outcome for the church I talked a out last time happens at all it won't happen all at once when the law changes but will develop gradually in response to the new conditions. I think the bad results for the state will be even slower and more gradual. But I think this makes the problem worse not better. If the negative effects were seen immediately there might be some chance to back peddle. However I think these effects will only become apparent after they are widespread and irreversible. 

In this post Sarah Hoyt makes a clear logical argument as to why gays would want “marriage” not just a civil union. She makes a point that there is a weight of tradition, that the word encourages stability and enforces a public commitment. She points out the problem of hetero couples using civil unions for less serious commitments.
But right now the state does not strongly enforce the permanency of marriage. And we are seeing a high divorce rate with as many as 50% of all marriages ending in divorce. We have celebrities who throw big weddings and are getting divorced before you have time to turn around. People tisk and speculate how committed they really were in the first place. But there is no hint that there is or even should be any actual enforceable consequences to making a frivolous marriage.
It is in America's best interest, however, to be able to promote serious commitment with policy. It's also good to know when someone doesn't have a committed partner they can lean on and might need more help in hard times. But there's no way for a bureaucracy to look into the heart and detect a serious commitment. So we have built a large accumulation of policy based on using a legal marriage as a proxy for commitment.
There are two reasons this has worked as a proxy for commitment. The first is that the state used to enforce the commitment by making it very difficult to get out of and by treating the commitment as legally binding. This is increasingly no longer the case. The second is that churches and other religious organizations presented it as a grave commitment to God, who could not only say you need to stay married but could look into hears and would know if you weren't really doing your best to love, honor and cherish the other person. This formed the basis for a shared social consensus for the serious of marriage and a shared expectation of the gravity of beginning or ending one.
Even if most formally withdraw from civil marriages in general there will be significant churches at least some civil marriages won't be recognized as religiously valid. It will often be those churches most interested in doing moral enforcement of marriage norms were what they mean by marriage and what the state now means be marriage are obviously not the same. This will mean they have the effect of eroding rather than encouraging shared general consensus. We're already losing shared social consensus on a lot of things. While it will take time for this erosion to take place we will be headed in the direction of legal marriage being just a bundle of tax and benefit implication that should taken up and put down when convenient.
         We will no longer be able to use marriage policy to effectively promote stable family formation or determine who needs support. I can think of ways to try to force marriage to still equal serious romantic commitment but I can also see serious problems with all of them. I think the only realistic possibility is political marriage policy becoming set of vestigial loopholes that are clinically exploited. And this would be bad for America.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why gay marriage might help the church but hurt the country. Part 1

Marriage certificate from a Bible

I think it's very clear in scripture that when God instituted marriage He specified it to be between a man and a woman. I also don't think it's in the best interests of America to change our traditional understanding of marriage. But I do think it might be of benefit to the Christian church if the federal government recognizes gay marriage. My reasoning on this is a little different from what I've heard elsewhere so I want to lay it out:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Which Regrets

      "Every decision has its price.... It's not given to anyone to have no regrets; only to decide, through the choice we make, which regrets we'll have."

        -David Weber In Fury Born

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Good Book

I have a tendency to leave books scattered around the house wherever I happen to be reading them. A couple of days ago I had left one of my bibles on the couch, and my husband took a couple of cute pictures of our dog Geisha leaning against it. And he found part of the cuteness in the fact that it was the “good book” rather than some random book that I had left there, as if Geisha had some idea what book she was leaning against.But of course a dog cannot understand what a bible really is, beyond a particular copy having a nice feeling cover. 
          We can know what an incredible gift the bible is. This treasure of God revealing himself to man. This chance we have to read about His deeds and to see parts of His character. But I think sometimes we focus so much on the presence of the divine manifest in this knowledge that we forget this is also a book. I've been thinking this week about being interested in the people and times that God was interested in. Noting the human element that God was engaging with and that he chose to convey his word through, reminds me to come to the Bible with all of my mind, ready for God to engage my humanness.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The benefits of low eye contact

Like most people on the Autism spectrum making eye contact with people is not an instinctual thing for me. In fact it makes me uncomfortable and is distracting. But I have learned how to do it and I can usually even do it while sparing half a mind to pay attention to something else as well. But is it always worth it to put in that effort?
photo by Michele Laterza
Some time ago I was experimenting with wearing sunglasses to what effect taking eyecontact out of the equation would have on causal interactions like dealing with the checkout clerk. One of the first things I noticed was that more people were getting in my way at the grocery store. Or to be more accurate not getting out of my way. On subsequent observation and reflection it seems that a woman walking towards on a collision path and looking at you without meeting your eyes triggers some sort of social response and leads to alteration of of path to avoid collision.
Just to be clear, I don't think I started out making the assumption that other people would be the ones to change their path. But because of my trouble correctly perceiving and interpreting motion I take a second or two longer than most people to change my path. The fact that people were preemptively moving out of my way probably increased my subconscious belief that vectors were likely to change so that I needed to give things time to settle down.
Lack of eye contact also does cut down on surprise occurrences of chit-chat. Since I find chit-chat almost uniformly stressful the decrease in its incidence does sometimes seem like an OK trade off for unintentionally appearing less friendly. Overall I do think meeting people's eyes is a very good skill to have so you can use When you WANT to. But our goal shouldn't be to use eye contact just like neurotypicals. The goal is to communicate in a way that can be. Understood, not to put on a mask and pretend to be normal.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Accomidating myself

I've been neglecting my blog lately. Some of it is various types of busyness. But the primary problem has been technical difficulties. Or not really technical difficulties, more like difficulties with how my own head related to the tech situation. First, the computer I used to use to composes and post, it's ability to connect to the Internet died. And then in rearranging our house the seat at the desk I used to use to work on the blog went away. Now at no point did I face an insurmountable difficulty. I just couldn't work on the blog with same routine at the same place anytime I wanted to. I would have an idea for a blog but I would struggle with a copy and paste, or spend ten minutes trying to include a picture. And pretty soon I was out of the habit of blogging. Looking back I'm surprised at how a little extra difficulty derailed a process I had already routinely spent so much effort on. Being unfamiliar with the interface or uneasy in my location made me uncomfortable with the whole blogging process. I'm uncertain how much of it is me, how much is due to Asperger's syndrome and how much is just an average human reaction.
Well I've figured out how to cut and paste on an iPad. I have a little more comfort in my new routine. I'm going to try to get back to blogging. But I probably won't do it quite as much as I did before. Amount other reasons, I'm going to try and write a novel and that will crowd out blog writing time to a considerable extent.