Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Birkenshaw Tale

I have Jeffrey Kacirk's famous desk calendar on "Forgotten English". Occasionally I try to make up stories using some of the words. Here is an example based on today's word:

Today's Forgotten English: birkenshaw—"a sunny place of all kinds of brushwood—a poet's country. There they roam unseen amang the Birks and yellow broom, and tune their pipes." (John McTaggart, Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, 1824.)

Example of usage…

Some aged hippies from San Francisco, with backpacks stuffed with all sorts of good stuff, wandered around the birkenshaw of northern Marin county, looking for a nice spot for grooving out on Nature while smoking some of it. Of course, they were wearing Birkenstocks in the birkenshaw, and funky tie-dyed shirts with little leather vests with dangly strings and beads. After a day of grooving in the birkenshaw, they traipsed back to the highway and hopped in their volvos and drove to their favorite Starbucks, back in San Francisco, for some mochas and pastries. The next weekend, the aged hippies returned to their favorite spot in the birkenshaw for another beautiful afternoon of love, peace, and soul. When they arrived, they found their hideout taken over by some deranged bums. One bum pulled a knife on them. Screaming in terror, they fled as fast as their Birkenstocks could carry them.

Moral of story: To paraphrase V.I. Lenin, "One bum with a knife can beat a hundred aged hippies without one."

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Little Ecstasy

Harrell's scholarly history, "All Things are Possible", looks like it was written from a secularistic perspective, although in his preface he says he endeavored to be objective and not to make any theological judgements. Well, that doesn't trouble me that much, so long as he presents his history in a coherent manner, lets the principals and events speak for themselves, and refrains from using them as a launching pad for his own philosophical speculations. However, I did wonder just how perceptive Harrell would be when I came across this howler in a quote early in his introductory chapter:
Ecstatic religion, with its emphasis on divine healing and the physical presence of the Holy Spirit, had long filled and important place in the barren emotional lives of the poor.

The italics are mine. Well, as far as I know, all orthodox Pentecostal, or "charismatic", xtians believe that the Holy Ghost is a spirit, the third person of the blessed Trinity, and consequently, he is not a physical being, who has to sneak in through the front door of the church. Yet if someone went strictly by what Harrell wrote, he would mistakenly conclude that Pentecostal xtians thought of the H.G. as being present in the same sense which the pews they were dancing upon or the tambourines they were shaking are present—to wit, as something physical or material.

Nevertheless, I think that Harrell was simply making a semantical error here or using a poor choice of vocabulary. I suspect that by the word physical he really meant something more like the word actual. But his mistake is a little telling and suggests, perhaps, that only the physical and material can ever be actual or real in Harrell's secularistic mindset. Anyhow, I don't think I shall make a big deal about this point.

Now as for "ecstatic religion": Well, it's not just for the "poor", and Harrell seems to have forgotten his xtian history. There was plenty of "ecstatic religion" going on in the past. Some of it was even quite phenomenal. All he needed to do was read up on the history of some of the saints (just one example being saint Teresa of Avila). Pentecostals believe that God has always been interested in spreading some of the ecstasy around, rather than keeping it all confined to just a few, rare individuals (see Numbers 11:29). Anyhow, excuse me for now, but I'd like to get back to playing my tambourine. And when I get going, you should hear it shake and twirl and jingle-jangle. A little ecstasy goes a long way.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Latte-Sipping Po Moes

As I have mentioned some time ago, I am going through Dan Kimball's book "The Emerging Church". Kimball's book has been fascinating, and I wish that somehow I could get Dan and Marva J. Dawn together at the same table and have a conversation with them, for they both seem to share many of the same concerns. I highly recommend Dawn's book "Reaching Out without Dumbing Down".

Kimball has plenty to say, and I could take just about any page I've read so far and lift out something that I could comment about. So far I only have some minor criticisms. Kimball is quite right to point out that we are living in a post-xtian society. The only qualification I would add, and which is one I suspect Kimball would agree with, is that not all parts of the country are equally post-xtian. It depends much on where you are.

Now Kimball lives in Santa Cruz, California, which is a town with a big University of California campus. Considering that the country's educational institutions, its colleges and universities, have been in the tight, iron-fisted grip of the Leftist thinking for years and years now, it's little wonder that Kimball will have run into more than his fair share of young students who have been very successfully indoctrinated educated in progressive thought, tolerance, multiculturalism, and liberating sexual experimentation — and in whatever fashionable stuff the intellectual haut monde of France is exporting nowadays — the propaganda education being provided by assorted Marcusean, Gramscian, and other neo-Marxian college professors. (Then again, they might be getting all this by the time they're in high school.) Now assuming these young students were the only people Kimball ever meets day-to-day, then it's little wonder he might start thinking the whole country was turning into a bunch of latte-sipping Po Moes, heavily in-touch with their inner whatever, dressed in faux dreadlocks and grody threads, who sit around in Starbucks discussing how everything is "all Bush's fault", and how supremely cool Howard Dean and the Dali Lama are. But, really, it's not the case. Not all parts of the country are equally post-xtian. Some parts are more post-xtian than others. Some are less. Some are more. Kimball, I think, happens to be located in one the more post-xtian areas of the country. In contrast, for example, here in Land-In-Between there are probably far more churches per capita than anywhere else I have been before, and nobody has the slightest idea who Derrida is.

Secondly, Kimball makes a great deal out of the distinction between the "Modern" and the "Post-Modern". I think he overblows the dichotomy somewhat — no, maybe he overblows it way too much. If Kimball were to say that Land-In-Between, for example, has more churches because it happens to be more "Modernist", well, it would sound to me like he had committed himself excessively to a simplistic, monotone theory. Furthermore, for every item he points out as being peculiarly "Post-Modern" in character (and supposedly antithetical to "Modern"), well, I think I could dig up dozens of antecedents, going as far back as the early 20th, 19th, and even the 18th Centuries. There was plenty of intellectual ferment back in the 19th Century that had a definite feel about it that is similiar to those things Kimball categorizes as "Post-Modern". For example, one could begin by looking at how Romanticism developed in the 19th Century, and how it entangled itself in everything from art to philosophy to religion to politics. The "upper story leap" that Francis Schaeffer once described has alway been around in some form in "Modernism", even going way back. So, anyhow, I still stand by my contention that "Post-modernism is simply Modernism with more cowbell". The cowbell has always been there; it's just louder nowadays. Kimball seems to hear just it, drowning out the rest of the music. In the end, Sagan and Derrida are simply flip sides of the same secularistic coin, and not everything under the sun is entirely new.

Finally, the one thing I would criticize hotly about the book is some of the dorky graphical artwork that Zondervan, the publisher, decided to use. It was very unfortunate. For the life of me, I can't see how anyone would have liked it.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Personally Enough

Taking a walk in neighborhood around sunset is something I do fairly habitually. Usually I take a little digital AM/FM radio and listen to assorted stations. The other day I happened to tune in to a local xtian station and heard some fairly big-name preacher say, in so many words, that he didn't like to call XP his "personal Savior" because using the word "personal" might suggest there was something special about himself, the big-name preacher. Also, at times, whilst I was voyaging upon the vast Blogific Ocean, I have stumbled occasionally across this particular meme elsewhere, this strange "we don't want to call Him personal anymore" idea.

The big-name preacher I heard is unduely alarmed. Believe me, there is no danger of anybody ever thinking there was something special about him, the big-name preacher. Nobody would be that mistaken. So really, he has nothing to worry about. Besides, fussing about the word "personal" seems, to me at least, more like silly quibbling over words.

But let us recall a few things about XP:
  • He personally agonized in the garden of Gethsemene.
  • His closest personal friends abandoned Him in His hour of deepest need. One of them even betrayed Him.
  • He personally endured beatings, insults, and mockery from many of His people's religious rulers, the very ones who should have recognized who He was.
  • He personally endured the horrific scourging inflicted up Him by the Romans.
  • He personally wore a crown of thorns.
  • He was personally condemned to be crucified by the Romans, with the crowds shouting for it. Instead a career criminal was released.
  • He personally carried His cross to Golgotha, until He was so weakened by His ordeal that Romans forced another man to carry it.
  • He personally was nailed to that cross. Cruel spikes were driven through the hands and feet of His blessed person.
  • He personally endured hours of agony and thirst. His mother stood by and watched in horrified helplessness.
  • He personally died, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
  • He was pierced by a Roman spear, and out of His person flowed blood and water. Witnesses personally saw this.
  • They buried His person in a borrowed grave.
  • He personally rose from the dead, on the third day, and in His very person appeared to many of His disciples.
So if someone were to ask me, a wretched sinner such as I, all of this is enough for Him to be my personal Savior.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Runny Mascara

As part of my continuing program of studying the revivals of 20th Century, I am currently plowing through Vinson Synan's lengthy history textbook entitled "The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal". Synan does lay out much of the gory details that histories are supposed to provide — names, places, dates, and who did what, where and when. But unlike Epstein or Blumhofer, Synan does not go about trying to nail things onto a secularistic framework.

It's been enough to keep me fairly occupied, which is one reason why my blogging has slacked off. His book covers a vast amount of wide-reaching territory, and it has several contributors. I guess Synan was the presiding editor.

Even though it is jammed packed with the stuff of history (names, dates, etc.), if anything Synan's book is almost too abbreviated, and it easily could have been expanded into several volumes. It would be a very good introductory textbook. With extensive notes in the back, the book has 15 chapters. I've now reached chapter 13, written by David E. Harrel Jr., entitled "Healers and Televangelists After World War II". Unfortunately, nowadays this is what most people immediately think of if someone mentions the word "Pentecostal" — cheesy televangelists with puffy hairdoos, accompanied by lugubrious ladies with runny mascara, perpetually begging for money. In fact, it's just a small portion of the overall picture, although it's the tiny part that has grabbed all the attention.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Launching Pad

Book Review
Title: Fire From Heaven
Subtitle: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century
Author: Harvey Cox

There are hardly any books on the subject of the history of the Pentecostal movement at the public library, here in the town of Bogwater. But I checked out one by Harvey Cox, mistakenly thinking that his book was a history.

Nope! How mistaken I was! Cox's book does have a little bit of history in it, but it is hardly what I would call a history written by an historian. What little history there was in his book served mostly as a launching pad for Cox to indulge in lofty theological philosophizing. What I'd really like to call it is a steaming pile of something else, but I'll be nice and just describe it as the kind of liberal twaddle that Ivy League academe is bound to love — jammed packed with all sorts of highfalutin concepts such as "cognitive gridworks" and "perceptional barriers" and whatnot. In fact, the book is so larded with verbal cruff, that by the time I reached chapter four, the induced nausea I was experiencing made it increasingly difficult for me to continue reading the book. That he really had nothing worthwhile to say should not have been surprising, considering that Cox is a professor of religion at Harvard University. But then again Harvard long ago became "a haunt for every unclean spirit and every detestable bird." It's hard to believe that Harvard was once founded by actual xtians.

Therefore, I wouldn't recommend bothering with the book. About the only worthwhile thing were some of the bibliographical notes in the back, which mention the titles of actual histories and which may be worth the trouble trying to find on Amazon.

What was pitiful about the book was watching Cox thrash about trying to understand what's going on, trying to explain things first with this concept and then with that, when all along a simple 10-year old in a Sunday School class, having a heart of faith, could have grasped things with ease. Using the words from an old hymn from long ago:
I serve a risen Savior
He's in the world today;
I know that He is living
No matter what men may say…
Yes, a 10-year old can grasp that, but for a Harvard professor it's completely beyond him.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Sane is Insane

I finished Epstein's biography on Aimee Semple McPherson and am already midway through Blumhofer's lengthier biography. Both books have been very fascinating for me, but the difference between them is very noticible. Epstein writes as if he were genuinely intrigued by Aimee's life. Blumhofer's writing style comes off more like that of a resolutely dispassionate historian, although she supplies far more historical background details — especially on the concurrent events in the history of the Pentecostal revival in the early 20th Century, details which Epstein left out mostly in the interest of brevity. But there are places where Epstein added some telling details that Blumhofer chose to leave out.

However, one strange thing I noticed was a glaring contradiction between Epstein and Blumhofer concerning at least one fact. Epstein gives the date of the death of Aimee's father, James Kennedy, as occuring on October 20, 1927, to which Epstein adds these words (p.127):
Aimee had not seen her father in many years. Nowhere in her writing does she mention his death. She did not attend the funeral.
Blumhofer on the other hand, as she covered the events around Aimee's campaign in Canton, Ohio, in 1921, adds the following (pp.178-179):
During the Canton Crusade, on October 20, Sister's father, James Kennedy, died in Ingersoll, old and alone. Sister was preparing for her last healing service when word arrived… Her associates kept the news from her until the service ended. She took it calmly and spoke with reporters about James Kennedy's influence on her life and his interest in her evangelistic work. He had promised to be in Canton for her last Sunday, she said. Instead, when the meetings ended on Sunday, October 23, she took the night train to Ingersoll for his funeral.
Now that is a remarkable contradiction! One or the other, either Epstein or Blumhofer, has gotten his or her facts wrong. But more than that, while Blumhofer's text gives the year as 1921, the caption beneath a photograph of Kennedy, Aimee, Harold, and Rolf McPherson, on page 179, gives the year of Kennedy's death as 1922. It's odd that somebody couldn't read the obituary correctly.

There's also another seeming contradiction. Epstein says "Aimee had not seen her father in many years". Blumhofer says "James Kennedy had occasionally made long trips to visit Aimee's meetings" (p.179), which would seem to imply that she had still been seeing her father off and on.

As I said, Epstein does supply some telling details. As one example, there was an incident during the December 1919 meeting in the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Blumhofer vaguely and parenthetically notes, on page 147 of her book, that at one point Aimee "forcibly silenced at least one would-be prophetess during a large service". On the other hand, Epstein in his book amplified things considerably more, as can be read on pages 171-172:
In the middle of the auditorium a woman got up. Her face was rosy with excitement. Waving her arms about her head, she pushed her way to the aisle and started toward the altar, knocking off ladies' hats with her arms…

Aimee nudged the elder next to her on the dais, and whispered,: "Go! Go quickly brother, get that woman in her seat; this is not of the Lord."

At first he refused … but moved by Aimee's urgency, he got up. While the evangelist roused the crowd to a chorus to cover the incident, he guided the flailing zealot back to her seat.

In a moment she was in the aisle again, moving from row to row and grimacing. She waved her arms, knocking off hats and eyeglasses, shrieking "Praise God" and shaking her fist in people's faces.

Aime could not leave the platform to restrain the woman—such a thing on the evangelist's part would be so shocking a trangression of Pentecostal custom, it might ruin the meeting. So she pursuaded one of the choristers to get the woman out of the auditorium and into a smaller meeting room. There Aimee later observed her:
"There the enemy showed his true colors and purpose. The woman proved to be a maniac who had been in an asylum. Her delusion seemed to cause her to believe herself a preacher. She paced the floor, crying disconnected sentences, raving and preaching to the chairs… Yet this was the kind of woman many of the saints would have allowed to promenade the platform — fearing lest they quench the Spirit."
This account, published soon after the Baltimore meeting, is Aimee's defense of an action for which she was severely criticized.
I wonder how Epstein knew that the woman's face was "rosy with excitment". Did someone happen to take notes on the color of the woman's face back then? Now both Epstein and Blumhofer, more or less, endeavor to interpret the events of the Baltimore meeting as evidence showing that McPherson was steering things towards the "mainstream".

On the other hand, one of the charismatic gifts listed in the NT is the "discernment of spirits", the ability to intuit what's really happening beneath the visible surface of things, to see whether something has its origin in the Spirit of God or whether it is coming from elsewhere. It's a valuable if not very spectacular gift. Although the question never occured to either Epstein or Blumhofer, what would have happened if Aimee had allowed a deranged fruitcake up on the stage? One can imagine. In any case, it would served only to discredit the message Aimee was preaching. Now, in the past I have also met my share of deranged fruitcakes. For example, the loony groundskeeper at my college long ago who insisted that he was XP. Another was a poor soul debilitated by drug-induced schizophrenia who sat down and visited with me and my wife at a pizza parlor one time, and who happened to be someone she once knew back when he was still sane. Now both of these people looked very normal, that is, until you started talking with them. Would it be a good idea to allow either of them to start off an evangelistic service in front of thousands of people? No, I don't think so.

Therefore, it could just as well be the case that what occurred in the Lyric Theater was Aimee's seeing past the appearances to what was really happening and thus was able to avoid a catastrophe. Unfortunately, as later events in her life would prove, she didn't always exercise such keen discernment in dealing with some of the people who would later prove so damaging to her ministry and to herself personally. Nevertheless, using this incident as an example, it was interesting to compare how Blumhofer the historian and Epstein the biographer handled it; their different approaches are pretty well illustrated by it. Epstein goes for the dramatic, but Blumhofer maintains a detached, scholarly respectablity.

Many hard-core secularists regard conservative, Bible-believing xtians as already being ipso facto deranged. And consequently, they probably would not say there is any substantive distinction between Aimee Semple McPherson and the poor deranged woman who was in the auditorium that day, going around knocking off people's hats and eyeglasses. On the other hand, in this "enlightened" culture of ours, what is insane is sane, what is perverted is normal, and what is darkness is light.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Flapdoodle Freudian

A Book Review
Title: Sister Amiee
Author: Daniel Mark Epstein

This late afternoon, I was reading Daniel Mark Epstein's biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, entitled "Sister Aimee", published back in 1993 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which I had checked out from the nearby library. (Yes, we are literate and have libraries here in Land-In-Between.) Epstein's biography appears to be well researched, and the book has an extensive bibliography. So far I don't have many complaints about the book, but it is clear that Epstein will interpret his materials within the framework of his secularistic categories of thought. That he does this wasn't at all surprising or unexpected for me. It's just that occasionally the results can get a little ludicrous. For example, after retelling McPherson's childhood account of her escaping a dangerous encounter with an irate bull, Epstein concludes by saying:
But we can read this story, with its vivid details — the girl in the white frock with red moons, the bucket of kindling, the polled bull — as an elegant and precise sexual allegory.
This is pish-posh. But I am sure the perverts editors at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich probably liked it for its quasi-freudian insight. But then again, probably not many editors in NYC have ever grown up on farms. Livestock can be a little dangerous to be around if they're in a surly or unhappy mood; even a seemingly docile cow can throw around many hundredweight's worth of mass, enough to break some bones if you happen to be in the way, and therefore you always have to be careful around livestock. All this is just a simple everyday fact of farming life — Aimee grew up on a farm in Canada — and people who've lived on farms can tell many stories about farming life. And I guess modern biographers in turn will never fail to dream up flapdoodle freudian interpretations for these stories. But inspite of Epstein's occasional flights of inventiveness, he does keep the narrative mostly on course.

I understand of course Epstein's predicament as a biographer. He doesn't have any personal faith in the Gospel — at least none that can be discerned in his book — and furthermore, to get his book even published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, he necessarily has to approach his subject — the life of a flamboyant woman evangelist who was very emphatically a believer — purely from the viewpoint of a contemporary secularism that is acceptable to the educated elites, the foundation of this secularism being its unspoken confidence in its own intellectual superiority to xtians such as Aimee. Yet, even though Epstein confidently supposes he can always explain Aimee better than herself, there are some aspects of her life that necessarily will remain completely and forever opaque to him. And, of course, if Aimee were still around today, she herself would probably disagree with many of Epstein's interpretations of what was happening in her own life, maybe going as far as to denounce them vigorously. Nevertheless, Aimee is such a fascinating personality that, in various places in Epstein's book, she somehow still manages to explain herself fairly well, even stealing the show from her own biographer, despite his best attempts to do the explaining for her.

I've always wanted to read a complete biography on Aimee Semple McPherson, especially considering that she has had, howbeit remotely, a great influence on my life. On several occasions, many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Angelus Temple, back in SoCal, but that is a long story. Anyhow, I did take a peek at the ending of the Epstein's biography where I found out that Aimee had died on September 27th, 1944, from an accidental overdose of a prescribed sleeping medication.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Podunk City

Yesterday was rather eventful. First of all, my aged mother moved to her new home in Podunk City, here in Land-In-Between. She had been living on her five acre property, out five miles north of town in the forest, which she greatly enjoyed. She had a large, beautiful garden; grew raspberries, strawberries, and all manner of flowering plants; fed the quail until they grew to be the fattest quail ever, and other wild birds nested all around the place; ran her snow-blower in the winter (it gets to be three feet deep where she lived); and chopped the wood for the wood-burning stove. But taking care of five acres of property grew to be a little too much for her; therefore, she thought it was time to sell it and move to a smaller place.

We were out yesterday at my Mom's place to help her move to her new home. Moving all her furniture and belongings certainly would have been an all-day and very exhausting task. Yet, without my Mom asking anybody for help, about a half-dozen men, and several ladies, from her Podunk Backwoods Bible Church came out to help her. (The middle of Podunk City is where she is going now.) They brought their big redneck trucks, towing big redneck trailers. Some of them were brawny, plain looking men who work hard and don't talk much. One of them reminded me of my grandfather, although with his long grayish beard, he looked as if he could have been someone in the blues band ZZ Top. But I guess they all would be considered the sort of Bible-clinging nekkies that would give Anderson Cooper nightmares, that would cause, just by thinking about them, Rachel Maddow to break out in a cold sweat; the mere sight of them probably would cause George Will to go into convulsions; and the haut monde of Academe would tartly curl their lips in disdain, dismissing them as ignorant and unwashed. (They are washed in the Blood of the Lamb, however, the only washing that really counts.) Yet these were just some ordinary people here in the fly-over country of Land-In-Between, people whom the CMEs (Coastal Media Elites) don't know much about and wouldn't want as friends anyway. And it was these ordinary people who came out to help my aged mother get moved.

And I was thankful and more than glad to have them on my side. They helped us to load up the big U-haul truck my mother had rented. The piano alone, it seemed, weighed as much as a block of granite from the Great Pyramid of Giza, yet we managed to get it into the U-haul with little difficulty. Besides loading the U-haul, they loaded up their trailers with all the miscellaneous overflow items. And so what would have been a nearly impossible, exhausting, and all-day ordeal was finished before the morning was over. We prayed with them, the people from my Mom's Podunk Backwoods Bible Church, and thanked them for their help.

The task was done so quickly that we had enough time for my Mom to be able to take us out for lunch in a small cafe, named Granny's, across the street from the main Burlington Santa Fe railroad track that cuts through Podunk City. But just before this, however, a funny thing happened: For we had loaded the U-haul truck with the dolly and the folded-up moving blankets, stacked neatly near the back edge. But somehow we forgot to completely shut and lock the door on the back. While my Mom and I drove the U-haul to return it to the rental in nearby town of Bogwater, My wife was following in the pickup so as to give us a ride back, and she noticed that the counterweight spring had pulled the door wide open on the back of the U-haul. She tried honking to alert us to the situation, but unfortunately we didn't hear her. When the U-haul went over a railroad crossing on the highway, there was enough of a bump to cause about half of the blankets to jump out and fall out onto the road. Consequently, she had to pull over to retrieve the blankets, being careful to dodge any traffic. It was a good thing the dolly hadn’t fallen out, because that could have caused a serious accident on the thoroughfare. When we reached the U-haul rental, I was puzzled to see that the door open on the truck and some of the blankets missing. My wife caught up with us after a few minutes and explained what had happened.

There was enough time left in the day for us to help my mother unpack a few of her things, to get some living room furniture arranged, and to get her bedroom set up. One of my brothers, who has been staying with her, would be returning that evening from work to help with the rest of the other details. Later, my mother told us that she woke up at three o'clock this morning thinking over all the multitude of things that needed to be unpacked and stowed. Her new house is beautiful and quite large and located in a nice neighborhood in Podunk City. It has a large fireplace, a spacious kitchen, along with gas-heating, and large insulated garage. Although her front and back yards are very much smaller than her previous property, she has several very large ponderosa pine trees. Her beautiful backyard has an assortment of bird feeders that were set up by the previous owner.

But the move was a sad occasion for me. My father had died of leukemia in the previous house. And I have the feeling that this will be the last place where my Mom will be living.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


At my church the other day, the pastor said that next Sunday he wanted to talk about his “vision” for the future. Oh. I know what that means: building programs. I’ve seen this before several times. His vision will probably be about buying more property or constructing bigger auditoriums. There was a big chunk of land just up the street that they had been interested in, although the owner was still reluctant to sell. It seems that things invariably reach this stage when churches get to a certain size.

Speaking of buildings, what churches have on their properties nowadays are almost always auditoriums of some kind, big or small. Mega-churches, on the other hand, can be small cities almost, stretched out on enormous properties with huge auditoriums, and having wide parking lots, schools, bookstores, and offices, even restaurants and coffee-shacks and businesses on the side. But there is one thing I don’t think you will ever see, and that is cemeteries. Churches no longer take care of burying the dead, and churches don’t have sextons or fossors.

If one looks back in history, it wasn’t always this way. Let’s take Britain for example. Look at some of the old parish churches that dot the English landscape and almost always there was a graveyard situated on the church grounds, usually somewhere in eyesight of the sanctuary. Often one had to pass tombstones on either side of the walkway to get to the main entrance. To go to church on Sunday meant encountering some reminder of our mortality just over your shoulder. You knew that when you died the brethren at your church would take part in arranging your burial beneath consecrated ground. And when your surviving relatives went to church, they would pass by your tombstone and see your name inscribed there, along with your date of birth followed by the date of your death. Back in those days the term “xtian burial” had a very definite meaning, and life was recognized as something fleeting, and our stay in this world as only very temporary.

It seems, especially in the United States—at least everywhere I’ve been—that churches no longer have graveyards located on their properties. Instead we have asphalt parking lots, somewhere to park our massive, shining SUVs. Yet there is nowhere to park your mortal remains as they await the resurrection of the dead. It’s a little strange that things have turned out this way because I thought that the resurrection of the dead was central to the whole xtian Gospel, what our core message revolved around. But going to church no longer has any reminders that we’re all going to die. In fact, the whole messy business of sickness and death has been pushed off to be handled, out of sight, by the medical industry and the funerary professionals, who charge exorbitant prices, the first to ameliorate the suffering, and the second to hide its ravages with clever makeup. No longer do the brothers and sisters of your church take your mortal remains, bathe them, lay them out naked on the table, and lovingly wrap them in shrouds and grave clothes, put them in a coffin, and bury them in the cool green earth. Once death was a serious matter of keen interest to xtians, and it was a community affair for the whole church; burying the dead once was one of the Church’s important ministries. Back when Xnty started, xtians in Rome were even meeting in catacombs, which were vast underground necropolises for burying the dead. Imagine what your worship experience would be like if next to your pew there were sarcophagi, or if the interior of your mega-church was also serving as a large mausoleum. It’s true it wouldn’t be very “seeker sensitive”, but definitely there would be more depth of commitment. The Roman xtians didn’t seem to have a problem evangelizing their neighbors. Somehow they got them to come to church, even though it was located down there with the sepulchers.

What does the word “secularism” mean? Well, the word “secular” originally had as its core meaning the idea of an “age”. In fact, in astronomy the word “secular” is still used in this sense when refering to changes in the parameters of the planetary orbits that shift gradually over long periods of time or “ages”. But “secular” also came to refer to human life as it pertained to this present age or world in contrast to life in the age to come. And nowadays “secularism” really designates the general and pervasive attitude that only life in this present world is all the matters or should ever hold our attention. On the other hand, being a xtian means, or should mean, that one has realized that such an attitude is at its essence erroneous, and that this present life cannot be even properly understood except by reference to the Age that is to come. If we had cemeteries brushing up adjacent to our church auditoriums, would it help to counteract the overwhelming secularism of our ultramundane society? I think it might help. A cemetery is a reminder of the supreme fact that this life comes to an end, which is something most Americans very much like to keep from intruding into their consciousnesses. As the Scriptures say, it is appointed to man once to die, after that the Judgement. So if you can look out the window and see the tombstones as your pastor is preaching about this, I think the truth of it will strike a little more vividly, because you will know that it could just as easily be your tombstone out there that someone will be looking at someday. Imagine what evangelism would be like. Standing in contrast to the mad American scramble to acquire more things, there would be those somber reminders out there in the boneyard you walked past, as you went in through the front door, shook hands with the “greeter” in the foyer, and picked up the Sunday’s bulletin (packed with half a dozen different, multi-colored sheets of paper and what not)—yes, those silent reminders that life is short.

I doubt that I ever will get to vote on the pastor’s vision for the future. Probably things have been decided already, and I am sure the congregation will go along with whatever he has in mind. But there is this large section of vacant land just east of the church parking lot. If I were able to propose a motion for a vote, perhaps I’d suggest that the land be used for a cemetery, instead of a larger auditorium and bigger parking lot. With a little landscaping it would be quite lovely, and we could see it through the eastern windows.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Cube and Cathedral

I just recently finished “The Cube and the Cathedral” by George Weigel, which contains his thoughts about what’s happening in today’s post-xtian Europe. It’s a pretty good book and I recommend it, notwithstanding my pessimism about the future of Europe not being changed all that much by it.

Also, I am currently working through the two volumes of William Granger Ryan’s excellent translation of “The Golden Legend” by the 13th Century Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine. The “Golden Legend” was probably the most widely read book in medieval Europe, second only to the Holy Bible. Ryan’s translation into English is very beautiful. If you see it at the bookstore, buy it up immediately because they don’t publish books like this very often. For anyone seeking a better understanding of Medieval and Renaissance literature, reading “The Golden Legend” is absolutely indispensible.

Furthermore, Marva J. Dawn has written a very worthwhile book entitled “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down—A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time”. Although the book was originally published back in the 1990s, and Dawn tends to write in a somewhat academic manner (she likes to use the word “dialectical” a lot), yet her book is full of so much uncommon good sense and insight. I liked it so much that I am giving it a second reading, and I really wished I could somehow cleverly conspire to get the pastor and the worship leaders at my church to read it as well.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Truckloads from Kinkadia

Someone once asked some interesting questions about the state of evangelical aesthetics:
When did art stop being important to evangelical Christians? How did we go from Rembrandt to Kinkade? When did our appreciation of a work of art become based on how it matched the colors in our living room carpet?
I have pretty strong opinions about art, and my educational background included plenty of work in the pictorial arts. I did very well in my art history classes. Therefore, I can claim that I’m not entirely ignorant about the subject.

Some critical bloggerati think that most evangelicans are aesthetic barbarians. However, I must disagree with this viewpoint. On the contrary, I say that when you look at the overall picture, aesthetic barbarism is endemic to the larger society in America. The real questions to ask is why are evangelical xtians not all that different in their artistic tastes from everyone else? If evangelical xtians ought to excel in their artistic tastes, then how much so? And how important is it?

Funny, but I don’t recall any beatitude in the Gospel that started out saying "Blessed are the aesthetically sophisticated…"

But if evangelicans are supposed to have superior artistic preferences, does that mean that they must endeavor to be better judges of beaux arts than their neighbors? And if xtians were in the past good judges of art but no longer are, then who has the task of repristinating the lost aesthetic acumen? Who will do the educating? The pastors? Bloggers? The New York Times Magazine? The Village Voice? It’s remarkably easy, and much jolly fun, for people to dump on evangelicans about their deficiencies in some matter or another, such as aesthetics. But nobody tackles the underlying issues with any depth. However, we can agree that Xnty was the root and source of much great art.

As for the late Thomas Kinkade — who was marvelously successful and yet has been cited as the leading example that proves evangelical xtians are altogether clueless about the fine arts — my only real dispute with Kinkade was his excessive prices. In his heyday, Kinkade knocked out gazillions of reproductions of his oeuvres, and shipped them off, in big eighteen-wheeler truckloads, to his distribution franchises. All of this is perfectly okay entrepreneurialism. Many people do need unoffensive and colorful wall decorations. But, oh, the ridiculously over-inflated prices that were charged for each reproduction.

Just look at the little numbers in the corner of the picture. It might be something like "512/6500", which means that this picture was reproduction #512 out of a run of 6,500 manufactured from the original. Now, I have seen the prices, ranging up to several thousand dollars. So just do the math. With 6,500 reproductions of just one Kinkade, and each one being sold for more than a grand a piece, what do you have? Then multiply that by the number of separate variations of the same old cottages, which have all the indoor lights turned on. Well going by the arithmetic, Kinkade must have been a multi-millionaire, perhaps the richest Painter of Schlock™ who had ever lived. Now If xtians are to be criticize for buying Kinkadian cottages, it really should be for allowing themselves to be bamboozled because of the excessive prices they were paying. Because of the large reproduction runs, Kinkade cottages have little investment value. In fact, if anything, the Kinkadeabilia market reached a saturation point pretty early and collapsed. Who needs another picture of lit up cottages or gazebos in shady gardens? Nevertheless, let me say that not everything Thomas Kinkade did was merely cottages-burning-up-vast-amounts-of-electrical-wattage. I have seen a few of his landscapes and cityscapes, giclée on canvas reproductions, that I thought were fairly beautiful and expertly done. Underneath Thomas Kinkade's business savvy, there must have been genuine artistic talent.

Be that as it may, I think that if evangelical bloggerati want to pick on weightier issues, rather than merely complaining about somebody's garish interior decor, I could think of a few things I’d like to see investigated:
  1. There is the widespread, complete breakdown and disintegration of hymnody. So much of the music in church seems to be dictated by what gets broadcasted on "commercial xtian radio". This is especially a big peeve of mine, and I think it’s a far more important issue because the consequences are becoming increasingly disastrous in the community worship of the church. The hymnals were thrown out years ago, and a kind of collective amnesia has been imposed concerning the hymnody created by the xtians in the past. Nowadays so much of the music tends to be overly-repetitive and narcissistic and poetically impoverished. Somebody please tell me, why does everything have to sound like Bethel and Hillsong?
  2. Why do we need this glut of Bible translations? In their search for ever increasing profits, and to please the Wall Street analysts, book publishers are constantly inventing new translations and paraphrases, basically profiteering off of the Holy Bible. Now just because I ask this question, please don’t jump to the conclusion that I’m another one of those paranoid KJV-only nutcases. No, I am not. But with pastors regularly using over a half-dozen different versions during the sermon, I’m starting to wonder if maybe things are starting to get out of hand. Perhaps all this versioning is becoming a quick and easy substitute for doing the difficult work of careful exposition. I first noticed this trend back when everyone started using the Rick Warren's "40 Days of Whatever" stuff.
  3. Why is it that pastors who want to build mega-churches, after having accomplished that goal, end pushing their congregations into being members of "small groups"?
  4. Why is it that the people who painted those funny riverscape Trompe-l'œil behind the baptistries always used too much phthalocyanine green?

[Update] It is very sad that Thomas Kinkade died on April 12, 2012, due to a toxic combination of alcohol and drugs.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Young Martyr

As I have mentioned earlier, I have been reading Eusebius’ History of the Church. I’ve reached the part where he covers the Great Persecution under Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximin, and indeed it was very horrific. What is curious to me is Eusebius’ attitude about suicide. As far as I can recall, Xtians have always opposed suicide under all circumstances. I did notice however that Eusebius, with no hint of censure on his part, mentioned several cases, in his lengthy accounts of the persecution, where Xtian women committed suicide, often by drowning themselves in a nearby river, rather than endure impending sexual assault at the hands of Roman soldiers, or others, who were acting as tools of the persecution. Eusebius seemed to think that suicide was commendable in this case. While I am not trying to make too much out of this, I did find it curious, and it might provide a different perspective on the well known painting by Paul Delaroche, entitled “The Young Martyr”. In the painting, we have a beautiful young maiden, hands bound, floating dead in the clear water of a river. Although it is late evening, the background being dark, a heavenly light shines down from above upon her, and an aureole is depicted just above her head, an artistic convention indicating a martyr. However, there is no indications of the cause of death, and no apparent wounds are seen anywhere, so presumably the young lady died by drowning. What I wonder is whether in this case the painter Delaroche was harkening back to the incidents mentioned by Eusebius, and thus is implying that the lady chose to drown herself rather than have her chastity assaulted. I really don’t know for sure, but the painting might have such an interpretation.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


While I am ruminating on what direction to take Lunar Skeletons, I have been reading The History of the Church by Eusebius (AD 260-339), who was once a bishop in Caesarea in Palestine back in the days of the Roman Empire. I read The History once before, years ago, but this Christmas I received a gift card to Border's Books, and so I decided, for some reason, to pick up the Penguin Classics edition of G.A. Williamson's translation. Eusebius may sound dry-as-dust, but for me at least, it has been interesting reading.