Rethinking “Jesus Alone”

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If I walk into a church and the first thing I see is a coffee shop… I’m leaving. After I get my mocha of course.

On a serious note, what is it about spirituality and a faith that connects with people? How does that belief play itself out; creating a moral code that person lives his or her life by in accordance with the spiritually driven values?

For modern American Christianity especially, I’ve perceived a driving mantra for the new millennium Christian: Jesus alone. No, this is not a new feature in the religion but I see it more frequently. This driving point of “you only need Jesus” seems to be championed by more modern churches (the mega, the non-denominational, what have you). This makes sense. In an effort to create a new approach to Christianity, it follows that the method would be “Jesus alone,” with little to no connection to other Christian traditions and heritages. The premise is that “religion,” in some form or fashion, has gotten in the way with a person’s personal relationship with Christ, thus this theology encourages the believer to push away traditional notions of “religion” and simply follow Jesus. If that is your approach and your source of spiritual fulfillment, I am not going to judge, criticize, or knock it, but merely ask questions of it.

A few months ago, I read part of a book by an author that I will not reveal, to be published by a major publisher. The theme of the book is just what I’ve been discussing here, the idea that all you need is Jesus. One chapter in particular focused on the idea that “religion” had overtaken the love of Jesus and “religion” is just full of rules that get in the way of a real relationship. Sound familiar? It should, because you hear this from many Christian platforms. Incidentally, don’t bother looking for this book because it was never released. Prior to its publication, it was revealed that the author had engaged in some pretty awful behavior that he was not up front about, so the book was pulled.

I hone in on this author for a reason. He was (based on his bio and look) the typical “hipster” cool pastor. No formal training or education in religion, just a magnetic personality that managed to obtain followers. Yes, there goes Andrew again, being an educational elitist. I know it is a delicate balance: I’m not going to disparage someone for not having training in divinity because then I would be imposing my concept of spirituality on someone else, a practice I am trying to eliminate!

What a lot of Christians miss with the whole religion and “rules” thing is that millions of people find spiritual fulfillment in this way of life. It is not a burden to follow religious edicts, but rather a joy. This is how that spirituality is expressed. Even more troubling, the churches and pastors that push this ideology that rules and practices are bad or devoid of meaning are digging into the anti-Semitic heritage of Christianity, whether they mean to or not. Christianity has traditionally looked at Judaism as a religion more concerned with rules and regulations, rather than faith. The assumption has been that Jews must observe these rules in order to obtain salvation. This is a complete misunderstanding of both the Torah and Judaism as “salvation” is not linked to following Torah and Torah is a gift of God.

If you follow the belief that all need is Jesus, I’m glad you have a spirituality and a Christianity that speaks to you. This isn’t a call to abandon that, just a suggestion that I try to push with everything: really spend time self-evaluating what it is you believe and why you believe it. Many of the churches that push for “Jesus only” may shun the concept of religion, but in reality, they are merely creating their own. Think about how similar these churches are: from their “hip” stage setup that resembles more of a rock concert than a traditional church, to the coffee shop in the lobby (where I’m willing to bet first time visitors get a free cup of coffee!), to the countless small groups designed for every facet of life. Religion and practice exist within this environment, the only difference is that they try to go by different names.

If having a “Jesus alone” approach to your faith works for you, I’m happy for you. Just know that 1) The church you attend is probably engaging in all the trappings of “religion,” you just don’t recognize them because they look different from what are accustomed to and 2) don’t criticize those who stick to what you deem to be a “religious” code because that is how that person experiences their spirituality. You most likely won’t find me in a church with this ideology, but hey, it wouldn’t be the first time. On the upside, at least I’ll enjoy my free cup of coffee.

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What I Learned By Giving Up Video Games

Xbox

Last July, I made a snap decision one evening. I am a man of many hobbies and interests and my mind typically runs at 100 miles an hour, sometimes in the wrong direction. I decided that afternoon that my Xbox 360 had dominated far too much of my time. Sure, in July of 2016 it wasn’t the newest gaming system around. But I found myself constantly roaming the digital landscape of sandbox games like GTA IV, GTA V, Red Dead Redemption, and others. This is not a knock against video games, my God they are fun! But they are also, and I believe this, addicting and dulling to the senses. If you are under a certain age, that last sentence made me sound like Grandpa knocking any form of entertainment more advance than the Nickelodeon, and if you are over a certain age, you’re wondering why a grown man with a wife, career, and mortgage even plays video games.

I decided that video games were taking up too much of my time. It wasn’t the fact that I was spending too many hours a day on video games. What I realized was how much I was missing out on other things while mindlessly playing. Like I said, I have a ton of interests and hobbies and more productive ones were being neglected.

What made it truly click for me on why I should give up playing videogames was how little I got out of playing them. When I play guitar, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’ve either improved my playing, written a new riff, figured out a song, etc. When I spend my time reading, I’m either engrossed in a piece of fiction, learning about a historical figure, or learning something in general. Even the simple act of writing a blog post such as this improves my writing and allows me to share my thoughts with the world.

Video games have a bad give-to-take ratio. For me, working on music is a good ratio. I put in a lot of work on a song and I am rewarded by the satisfaction of having figured out a song or written a new one. Watching movies (one of my favorite activities) is similar. I watch a movie and appreciate art direction, characters, plot, etc. Even better, maybe a film makes me think about something in a new way.

In a video game, what did I truly get out of it? Even if you play the mission in say an open world game, what did completing missions actually bring? Honestly, absolutely nothing. I decided the only thing to do would be to unplug the Xbox and see what would happen. This was July 2016 and I didn’t hold an Xbox controller until February 2017 (this was a momentary lapse back into addiction that, thankfully, only lasted a week. The Xbox is resting comfortably again in the closet).

What did I learn? Simply put, I learned how to better spend my downtime. I was reading a lot more, which is saying something because I consider myself a fairly avid reader. I began picking up the guitar more regularly and found myself working on new material. Overall, my entire creativity improved, my movie viewings increased, and even my dreams became more vivid. I was actively engaged in the creative process and entertainment, not passively playing a game.

I’m not saying this approach is for everyone. If you are an introvert, this is not a call to go out and mingle with all kinds of people. If group activities are not your thing, then do not seek out group activities. Find something you can do in solitude that will expand your mind and fill your sense of accomplishment more than an electronic medium. Take up cooking, drawing, or art. Pick up a musical instrument. Start a new TV show or watch some classic movies. Read a book, take up walking, gardening, coffee brewing, beer making, or even bootlegging. One of the goals I wanted to accomplish this year was to listen to two new albums every week. Give that a try! My point is that I found I wasn’t getting out of video games what I was putting into it, and I have been able to think of plenty of other things to do.

I’ll end with the following. Without sounding too televangelist-y, what takes up time in your life that leaves you feeling empty? Are you like me and it is the video games that do you in? If you don’t want to give up a counterproductive activity, then might I suggest setting it aside for three days and doing something else instead? If it works and you feel great, then keep going! If not, well, at least it was an experiment. Game over.

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2016 In Review: Books

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One of the great joys during my day is any time I able to sit down and read. Whether I have a few spare moments on lunch, an early Saturday morning, or a few minutes before bed, I always try to do a little reading every day. I made a commitment to myself some time ago to spend downtime on bettering myself and nurturing positive hobbies, and reading is one such hobby. Maybe one day, I’ll post about my love of reading and the various kinds of books that I enjoy. In the meantime, I am stealing my friend Gordon’s idea and posting a list of the books I read last year. It was a fairly lite year in terms of the number of titles read. To be clear, this is a list of books that I completed in 2016. I still have a few more that I am working on. Those will make a 2017 list. Here are the books I read in 2016 with my brief comments. Note: These are in chronological order, from earliest in the year to the latest.

 

  • Luke Skywalker Can’t Read by Ryan Britt – Britt writes some humorous, if not forgettable, essays on various aspects of nerd pop culture. To be fair, it has been a year since I read this book, so some of his details and points are a little fuzzy for me. Still, it was an interesting read and worth a check-out from the library.
  • Zen in The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury – A wonderfully written collection that is part history and part “how-to” for writing. Bradbury entertains and informs. He will always be one of the greats and this was one of my favorites this year.
  • The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins – I think this one came to the attention of a lot of people last year, especially through the movie (which I have yet to see). I don’t read thrillers too often, but I found this one entertaining enough. I think it is hyped a little beyond its quality and uniqueness, but certainly worth a read.
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – I know bookworms will bemoan what movies to do their favorite pieces of fiction, but I am here to say that Blade Runner is better than its source material, i.e. this novel. It honestly did not grab me as much as the film does (which I have been a fan of for several years), but it was good to go back and read the source material. I have been told by friends that Dick has many other great novels and this is just not one of his best.
  • Will You Please Be Quiet Please? By Raymond Carver – This was an interesting collection of short stories with slices of American life. Good writing and great characters.
  • The Horror of It All by Adam Rockoff – I do enjoy reading books about movies, especially horror movies. That might be the reason why I found this one to be so-so. I did not gain any new insights into the genre nor hear any new arguments, just more-or-less of the same for anyone that reads about horror films.
  • Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura – This one gets tricky. It is essentially a love letter to and analysis of Endo’s Silence. I appreciated this book for its brief look at Christianity in Japan, but honestly, it could have gone through the editorial process a little longer. It was all over the place and the author’s purpose seemed lost at times.
  • Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty by Dan Jones – I both loved this book and was let down by this book. I loved it because it gave a great historical analysis of how and why the Magna Carta came into existence. Also, it began with the great premise that modern political discourse has blown Magna Carta out of proportion in terms of what it created and what it did not create. However, it let me know down because by the final chapter, the one where the real analysis should have come in on how its modern influence, the author just ran out of steam. Still, a great work on the history of the famed document.
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – I’ve loved the story and various film adaptations for years, so I thought it was time to read the novella. Short and sweet, it was a great spooky story that is perfect for Halloween.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – Again, mysteries are not my typical genre of choice with reading, but I decided to give one of the masters a try. She did not disappoint. An absolute page turner of a story with an genius-level crafted ending, this was my favorite book that I read in 2016. An all-time classic and a must read for all.
  • A Year Without Purchase by Scott Dannemiller – This began with so much promise, but I think the author took a 100 page idea and stretched it into a 200 page book. The idea of not buying anything (with certain caveats) for an entire year was intriguing, but the premise fell short for me. Some reviewers have gone as far as to call it white people in suburbia problems, but I think it was still an interesting premise. My takeaway was that perhaps we are too quick as society to discard unused/broken items, or alternatively, seek out new items when suitable counterparts already exist in our homes.

 

What books did you read last year that really grabbed or disappointed you? What are your reading goals for 2017? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear your take!

-Andrew

 

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Please Reign Over Me: The Bible, Trees, and the Problem of Power

For years, in both an academic setting and in other writings, I have railed against the misuse of the Bible. I see it used as a moral justification to deny humans basic rights by taking ancient passages out of context and I have watched as those who claim to live their lives by it ignore the difficult passages for which any modern reader should grapple. For this post, I am going to approach things differently. Instead of looking at a biblical passage historically, I am going to argue how it applies to today’s world, using a very specific situation. If I were giving this as a speech, I believe it would be called a sermon.

I am going to give a cautionary warning based on a passage in the book of Judges. If you are not familiar with it, let me provide some quick context for the book of Judges. It is a collection of several independent stories that chronicles the tribulations during Israel’s tribal period. This is a time in which they had been led into the Promised Land by Joshua, but before the establishment of the monarchy.

In Judges 9, Abimelech (literally “My father is King”) goes to the city-state of Shechem after the death of his father Jerubbabaal (also known as Gideon). Abimelech approaches his mother’s family, likely a ruling class, and asks which would be better: For all seventy of Jerubbabaal’s sons to rule or just one. They respond one, and Abimelech kills all his brothers on his father’s side, save for the youngest, named Jotham, who escapes. Abimelech is made king by the elders of Shechem.

At this point in the story, Jotham approaches the elders and tells them the following parable:

“The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ So, all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” (Judges 9:8-16, NRSV).

Those who create realize that taking a position of power means they compromise their craft. Alternatively, those who truly do not contribute to the benefit of humans seek power. The olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine contribute to betterment by producing goods that people need. Yet, the bramble (or thorn bush), not only wants assuredness that the others want it to rule, but suggests they take refuge in its shade. This is of course absurd, as what little shade the plant may produce would be useless, as one would have to navigate the thorns to even use what little shade was provided. According to the Cultural Background Study Bible (Zondervan Press), it is possible that the text is referring to a type of thorn bush (Christ Thorn, or Ziziphus spina-Christi) that does provide shade, however I think the suggestion of shade from a thorn bush is more sarcastic in this instance. Finally, the bramble threatens to have fire consume the Cedars of Lebanon, a large tree that does provide immense shade.

The fable in this passage is not only wary of power, but those who seek it. The thorn bush in this story lacks the usefulness of the other trees and should its own legitimacy be questioned, threatens to destroy a valuable tree. The self-confidence inherent in the fruit-producing tree is absent in the thorn bush, replaced instead by insecurity.

Perhaps at the end the true folly lies with those who ask others to rule over them. If we actively seek for others to make decisions for us and to dictate how one conducts his or her own life, then we are simply opening the door for the power-hungry. Instead, we should focus on our own abilities and the innovation of individuals, rather than hoping a ruling body will solve the problems of society.

At the end of the chapter, Abimelech meets a gruesome end. A woman drops a large stone on his head during a siege, at which point he asks his armor bearer to bring him a sword so he can take his own life, rather than having been killed by a woman. The ending is fitting. Abimelech gained power through violence and violence ended his reign. While I do not think the modern political climate will come to stones dropping from towers, the parable of the trees and the story of Abimelech serves as a cautionary tale for us all. Be cautious of those who seek power.

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My Official Book and Your Official Book: What’s Missing In TN’s Bible Push

“The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book.” This is the text in Senate Bill 1108. This begs a few questions. Which “Holy Bible?” Which translation? NRSV, CEB, KJV, The Message? Will we only accept the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek originals, or will there be room for the Latin Vulgate? Will the Apocrypha be included?

If you are unfamiliar with some of the concepts listed above, do not worry. However, if you are a lawmaker seeking to make the “Holy Bible” the official book of Tennessee, or simply a person supporting this bill, then you need to consider a few issues. To be frank, the entire notion of making the “Holy Bible” the official book demonstrates a simplistic, dismissive, and quite honestly, uninformed point of view. It should be widely understood that there are many different versions of the Bible, and not every group that identifies as Christian accepts all the books of “the Bible.”

For me, we do not even need to get to the debate of how non-Christians would feel with such a declaration. This should, I would hope, be obvious to anyone. Then one could launch into the typical church and state debates, religious freedom, etc. Those are all well and fine, but they also miss the fundamental problem that I have outlined here: Politicians and the general public, typically, do not possess knowledge of the Bible. Many people certainly are familiar with the Bible. It is widely read in Tennessee. But in my experience, people that approach the Bible from a specific faith point of view will not venture outside of that world view, unless prompted (i.e. a course on the Bible in an academic setting). Understanding some of the circumstances surrounding the Bible, both modern and ancient, provides an appreciation for the complexity of the text, one that is lost with the simple idea that there is only one Bible.

I’ll end with this: I agree with the conservatives that a Bible course should be offered in schools. Where I am likely to draw their ire is in the fact that it needs to be taught from a critical, academic point of view. This approach does not put forth a faith agenda, but merely demonstrates to the students how scholars have approached the Bible. I know this is dangerous as it leaves the student to make up his or her mind regarding their own faith and the role in which the Bible plays in that faith. As someone who has studied the Bible for years and has debated countless times with people who lean more towards biblical literalism, I do understand the apprehension to the critical study of the Bible, because it typically ends up contradicting their own beliefs regarding the text. While “liberals” and “conservatives” continue to battle for dominance, both sides remain locked in a one-dimensional view of a complex book that is typically informed from second hand knowledge rather than one’s own research or self-reflection. Then again, nuanced arguments never were a politician’s strong suit.

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Why Mystery Science Theater 3000 Should Not Return

Believe me, I am a fan. This show has weaved itself in and out of my life since its days on the “Comedy Channel.” I wasn’t big on Strangers with Candy or Kids in the Hall. For me, Comedy Central in its first decade was all about South Park and Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a kid, the show struck me as not only incredibly silly and accessible, but also as something sophisticated. For me, it was my first real example of “adult humor.” Not adult in the South Park way, but in the sense that so many of the jokes went over my head.  The jokes were either funny observations of something ridiculous on screen, or a reference that went way over my head as a child. Revisiting the show as an adult not only brings back the nostalgic memories of that delightful set, funny robots, and goofy mad scientists, but it also deepens my appreciation for the writers. The jokes are smart, varied, and cover a wide range of topics. It is also, obviously, steeped in 90s cultures, with many references likely slipping by younger fans that have discovered the show through YouTube. Age test: If you catch the reference to MCI when a character makes a phone call, you know what I’m talking about.

That being said, it seems that the obvious conclusion would be for me to donate daily to the fund raising campaign, started by MST3K creator Joel Hodgson, to bring back the show. My initial reaction was surprise. I thought it might happen, but I could not believe it was true. My second reaction was a resounding “NO.” I am not surprised that Joel wants to bring the show back, but what did surprise me was the overwhelming support this campaign seems to have drawn.

From what I have seen, I appear to be completely in the minority on this one. I do not want the show to come back. Before any animosity is flung my way like a small present from Professor Bobo, let me explain my reasoning.

Let’s start with the superficial reasons. At the time of this writing, a few new cast members have been announced. Not surprisingly, none of the original cast has signed on to return. Yes, Joel Hodgson is helming this return, but at this stage it appears that even he will not be seen on camera. Therefore we have new mads, a new victim on the Satellite of Love, and new voices for the bots. Of course I’ll be the first to admit, new characters and voices are not a problem for this show. The last few seasons looked nothing like the first few, and I strongly believe MST3K never jumped the shark. I love Joel episodes. I love Mike episodes. I love Dr. Forrester episodes. I love Pearl episodes. However, a new cast for the show after some fifteen years of being off the air seems too jarring and unnecessary.

My second reason acts more of an indictment of pop culture and the community that loves this show. Why are film and TV enthusiasts so adamantly against and so vocally opposed to the barrage of reboots and remakes in film over the past several years so blindly willing to give this a pass? Despite the fact that it is marketed to us as a “return,” let’s call it what it is: a MST3K reboot. To me, this is another example of a relic that worked perfectly in its own Sitz im Leben, which is now being dragged into our often, but not always, modern-era of creativity-devoid entertainment.

Tying into this point is my third and final argument. Why can we not allow great entertainment of the past to stay in the past? It’s not as if this gem of a show was cut short in its early days. MST3K enjoyed ten seasons of nearly 200 episodes on three networks, a feature length film, a complete cast change, the honor of being one of the most popular cult-T.V shows of all time, and ended its run with a proper final episode. Nothing in that list of accomplishments suggests that the show was cheated out of potential or cut short. Just because the show was bookended with a beginning and a definitive end does not diminish its impact or worth. Nostalgia has been wildly popular in the pop culture conscience for several years. One reason for that, I believe, is that those of us who love this kind of stuff are starved for truly great new material, thus we look back to the past. Of course, people of my generation are getting older and we, like previous generations, like to reminisce and swear adamantly that our stuff was better.

I may or may not watch the reboot of MST3K when it happens. Honestly, I have not decided. I suppose that if I was 100% committed to my principles, I would not. However, morbid curiosity may win the day. In the meantime, I will simply wish Joel the best of luck and continue to enjoy classic episodes of the show while I continue to find new forms of zany, creative, and joy-filled entertainment.

Am I way off here? Respond below or feel free to email me at fromthedeskandshelf@gmail.com

 

-Andrew

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Weekly Screening Write-Up: The Last Broadcast

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About The Series:

The Weekly Screening Write-Up is an ongoing series for my blog. The purpose is to review briefly, at minimum, one film a week. In order to keep it interesting, I have imposed two pieces of criteria on myself for this entry. I will only write on films that I have viewed for the first time. I will not discuss films that I have purchased. I will describe the manner in which I watched the film and give a brief review.

TITLE:

The Last Broadcast (1998)

Horror/Found Footage

DIRECTORS:

Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler

**MAJOR SPOILERS**

SYNOPSIS:

(From IMDB.com) “Bristling with equipment, two enthusiastic local access cable TV producers recruit an assistant and venture into a forest in search of the mythical and horrifying Jersey Devil. Days later, only one of the trio emerges. He becomes the prime suspect in the disappearances of the other two. However, a local filmmaker examines extensive footage found at the scene and arrives at a different conclusion.”

REVIEW & THOUGHTS:

Immediately, The Last Broadcast succeeds on two fronts. First, the movie does a good job of building suspense and mystery with its narrative. Unfortunately, it also manages to completely destroy the buildup with one of the most nonsensical endings ever put to videotape (yes videotape, this was not recorded on film).

The Last Broadcast begins interestingly enough. It is a found footage movie from the late 90s, but whereas The Blair Witch Project aimed for authenticity, it is clear that this film is manufactured with subpar sets and costumes, typically of news reports and police officers. The premise is perfect for a horror/mystery movie. A group of people venture into the woods, only one comes out. The others (expect for one) are found brutally murdered. The lone survivor is charged and tried for the murders. All the evidence presented in the film points to the character Jim (the survivor). We the audience know (or should know) that he did not commit the murders, so the real intrigue begins as the creator of the “documentary” begins picking apart the evidence piece by piece, slowly demonstrating that Jim could not have been the killer. In my opinion, the movie functions quite well to this point. You relate to the characters and want to discover who, or what, caused these murders.

Then, the entire movie crumbles with its twist ending. Skipping a few details, we learn that the person making the documentary, the person providing the voice-over, is in fact behind the murders. This on its face is not a particularly bad twist, however the execution is awful. The Last Broadcast bizarrely switches to a standard third-person perspective after the killer’s reveal, moving the film from a found footage to a standard format. It is unexpected to move from first-person perspective and interview format throughout the film, to seeing the killer holding a camcorder and speaking into it. This ruins the movie by completely pulling the viewer out of the experience of the found footage format. Overall, I thought the film had an interesting premise and a decent buildup, but the entire thing falls apart with the ending.

How I viewed it:

DVD through Netflix

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