They Wanted an Ark, but Built a Tower

Answers in Genesis is an organization located in Kentucky. Among their features is what is termed a “creation museum” along with a replica of Noah’s ark from the Bible story found in Genesis. The biggest problem with the Ark of the Creation Museum is that it attempts to be the answer to a question that the Bible is not asking. It wants to provide its guests an experience of Noah’s ark, but in reality, it is more akin to the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11.

The common understanding of the Tower of  Babel story is human pride drove the construction of the tower in an attempt to be more like God. My take-away from the story (and others before me) suggests that homogeneity of the people, not pride, drives the tower’s construction. The beginning of the story puts homogeneity at the forefront: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1, NRSV). A few verses later, the reasoning for the building of the tower also conveys the notion of being of one mind: “…[O]therwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). The feared consequence of not building the tower is separation from each other. The sameness is threatened. Pride is partially driving the human desire to build the tower, but it is pride in the uniformity of the community, not pride in the generic sense of human character.

This story has something to say about diversity. From God’s actions, it says that God prefers multiplicity to homogeneity. Why is that? Is there inherent beauty and even divinity in a diverse population? I think and believe so. What if the message were more subtle? What if the problem becomes when society has no diversity and is of one mind, but also suffers from the fatal flaw of being just plain wrong?

The Kentucky ark did not originate from pride. Much like the biblical story, I think the Noah-esq adventure comes from assumptions that the Bible and God fit into one agreed upon definition of Christianity. The community of a congruent faith displays for all an agreed list of assumptions. The language is one, its vernacular the same. The dialects of different faiths, biblical interpretation, and science have no place here.

The Ark and Creation Museum are a church. By their own admission, they provide tools for people to defend their Christian faith. In that way, they are a sanctuary. Within that location, Christians are reassured by the physical manifestations of the stories of the Bible. The message is soothing. “You are safe here.” “This is the world our God has created.” “The Bible is history and behold its physical recreation in front of you!” The answer that Answers in Genesis wants to provide is that your faith is validated. If we can show you that the creation of the world and subsequent early human “history” happened the way Genesis describes, then we can hold on to every word of the Bible.

The Biblical story ends with God taking action. The people are scattered, the languages confused, and the tower is left abandoned. If the Answers in Genesis museum is our contemporary Tower of Babel, then I encourage Christians to scatter and confuse themselves. Look and think about the stories of Genesis differently. Defending Christianity does not need to come at the expense of abandoning critical thinking and other ideas. Scatter yourself and find new outlooks and beliefs about the story. The true power of the stories comes from something deeper than a large boat or a vague tower. Confuse yourself with thought provoking and faith enriching questions about the story. Ask yourself what you believe and why. You do not need a tower nor a life-size ark to reach the Divine.

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Talking Past Each Other

Modernity brought fascinating changes to our everyday lives. Of the innumerable changes, one that comes to mind frequently is the accessibility and volume of knowledge. No longer does one have to sit tortured, unsure of the answer to a problem. In years past, a gap in knowledge might be fixed by a trip to the local library, or if you were lucky, by thumbing through one of several volumes of your own Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps in the comfort of your own wood-paneled den.

The idea of not knowing the answer to a problem is nearly quaint in this day and age. Not sure about the particulars of a certain historical event? Google has the answers. Who were the key figures in the Selma march? Wikipedia should have an article.

Unprecedented access to information, coupled with the constant exposure to news media, has produced negative consequences. Now everyone can be an expert.

No. Expertise nor its perceived presence is not my focus. I want to discuss another byproduct of all this knowledge: argument.

Americans are constantly arguing with each other. This isn’t really anything new, but as political opinions grow increasingly divided and social media (and blogs) provide a voice for everyone, the noise is reaching a fever pitch.

What I’ve noticed in most arguments, typically political or religious, is that each side will state his or her opinion, and provide x, y, and z as to why that position is correct. Well, let’s be honest. In the best of circumstances it is that. More often than not, it simply a “You just need to believe this” religious kind of argument or the usual political manifesto of “If we allow X to happen, what’s to stop Y?!”

We have become so determined to prove that the other side is hypocritical; so bent on showing why problem X persists, that we have forgotten to ask each other “How do you define that term?” For the longest time in political discourse, the best example was “the middle class.” In theological debates or religious studies, terms to be defined first are “salvation,” “sin,” or even “forgery.” Defining the term or concept at the heart of a debate should be the first step, not the forgotten one.

If we took the time to define a term or concept, I am willing to bet that the argument would completely shift. In fact, I am willing to bet that it would become a more meaningful discussion; elevated above the simplistic “you’re right, I’m wrong.” A saying that I have taken to heart in the past few years is “Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas.” Yes, there is plenty wrong with this statement, but at its heart is a potent truth. Great minds do discuss ideas. Think of this example. Let’s say a conservative and liberal are arguing about racism. Pick any number of incidents in which race has come up. It will apply. The liberal may something like “Racism was the driving factor in that event,” whereas the conservative will say, “Racism and/or racists had nothing to do with it!”

What has been accomplished in this exchange? Nothing. Neither side will be persuaded. Neither side will gain any new insights. Both sides will likely walk away thinking the other side is somewhere between incredibly ignorant or horrifyingly evil.

Now take that same argument and ask this important question: “How do you define racism? Or, what does racism mean to you?” This steers the conversation in a different direction. Racism for some simply means a person of one skin color hating a person of a different skin color. Another way to understand it is deeply embedded biases within social structures and the very fabric of society that prevent African Americans from obtaining levels of equality enjoyed by white people. The drastic difference in understanding can only mean that the two people in this scenario will never see eye-to-eye. Their understanding of racism is so fundamentally different, that they will merely talk past each other.

In my own life, I need this reminder. I need to remember that the more productive way to approach a disagreement is to ask if we are even speaking the same language. I encourage you to do the same in your day-to-day interactions and, God forbid, in social media bickering.

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What Jesus’ Genealogies Mean For Modern Christians

Recently Jesus’ genealogies (Matthew 1 and Luke 3:23-38) came up in a discussion with some colleagues. Someone remarked, “Why talk about them? What do Jesus’ genealogies have to do with me as a modern Christian?” This fits a pattern you have probably seen in your church or study group. How often have you been in a Bible study or Sunday school and either groaned at the idea of reading a genealogy or, more likely, just simply skipped it for the reading? Have you ever questioned the relevance of genealogies for your own faith?

The genealogies of Jesus are quite telling. Ancient Christians reading or hearing the Gospels would have picked up on their importance. The Gospel of Matthew’s genealogy ties Jesus to important Jewish figures, while the Gospel of Luke links Jesus back to Adam. The popular scholarly theory is that Matthew’s Gospel was circulated to a Jewish audience, whereas Luke’s to a Gentile audience.

What I would argue though is that the genealogies are vital to a modern Christian faith. Not so much in that the genealogies contain spiritual truths, though the differences between the two versions are interesting. The genealogies are crucial to modern faith because they confront Christians with a difficult truth: Not everything in the Bible was meant for you.

While it might seem shocking on first read, most Christians would likely agree with that last statement. Even the most ardent literalist would read through lists of tribes, genealogies, and others in the Bible with a slightly more disinterested eye as compared to Jesus’ teachings, the actions of well-known characters of the Old Testament, or even the legal material. Is it because genealogies are dry and uninteresting? Or is it because they are not in a narrative structure and lack the aforementioned spiritual truths? Why is it, precisely we dismiss them?

If the genealogies were important for the ancient world, but are not deemed applicable to the modern Christian, then what else in the Bible meets the same criteria? More importantly, how do Christians establish the standard by which biblical passages are judged in terms of their relevance to modern faith?

Here is another example that shows the same problem. Leviticus 11 contains several examples of clean animals that are acceptable to consume and unclean animals that the Israelites were not to eat. Without going too in depth with a historical and theological analysis, it is safe to say that most Christians ignore these passages today, specifically regarding pork. However, in the debate surrounding LGBT+ rights, Leviticus 18:22 is constantly referenced and pointed to as a source of divine authority on the matter. For Christians, what separates these two passages? The laws, as far as the Bible is concerned, are on equal footing, yet at some point, we have allowed certain passages to take precedence over others. As Christians, we should grapple with this. What source provides the authority that permits certain passages to be ignored and others to seep into American political life?

Is there divine influence in which parts of the Bible speak to us today? I believe so. However, I also know that nearly any sentiment or aspect of faith that one grounds in the Bible can also be countered by another passage in the Bible. Like so much of Christianity, as much as we focus on God, so much of our history is rooted in the decisions and interpretations of humans. No, Jesus’ genealogies are probably not relevant for your faith (unless you are a first year seminary student furiously writing an essay for an exam). What is relevant for modern faith is the extremely difficult task of constantly asking what is relevant for modern faith. It is not easy and being consistent with your beliefs and interpretations is also equally difficult. But if you want to follow the Bible, erring on the side of love is always a wise choice. Love is always relevant to modern faith.

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The Last Jedi – A Reaction (Spoilers)

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MAJOR SPOILERS!

 

The famous music hit. “Directed by Rian Johnson” appeared on the screen. It was over. I had just witnessed the newest Star Wars movie. For the first time watching a Star Wars film, I really did not know how to feel about it. I liked it enough, but it left me with an odd feeling that I could not describe for the rest of the day. A few hours after seeing the movie, the feeling dawned on me and I realized something about this movie. But first, let’s see what we’re working with here.

First, the nitpicks. My personal biggest letdown of the movie was Snoke. I was looking forward to seeing Snoke expanded after The Force Awakens did an incredible job of setting up this character. He was a puppet master in The Force Awakens and that film hinted at a larger role to play. Unfortunately, he was taken out easily and rather early in The Last Jedi. It diminished his perceived power and leaves the audience to wonder “Who was that guy,” and more importantly, “Why should I even care that he is dead?”

The fake-out death of Leia also did not work. Seeing her use the force like Superman regaining consciousness in outer space just did not sit well with me. I, like so many, am interested to see how Episode IX handles her with the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher.

What did work for me was the further development of the new characters. I think the core of Rey, Finn, and Poe are a solid trio and growing into fully formed characters. The new characters and locations where great and I loved the almost heist feel of this movie.

As I said though, this is more of a reaction rather than a review. So how did I feel about this movie? The Last Jedi is the most thematically complex of all the Star Wars movies. After the buildup to find Luke Skywalker in the previous film, we find him in TLJ a broken down man, asking questions of Rey what good did the Jedi play after all and what value is there in being a legend. That is one of the greatest strengths of this movie. It not only asks itself and thus the audience to look at the value of those we’ve placed on pedestals, but also looks back at the entire Star Wars saga and asks where do we go from here? That leads to something that I wonder if the film intended to do. The Last Jedi has managed to, as Kylo says, “let the past die.”

That is the feeling I was encountering after watching this movie. It was the feeling that the past of Star Wars, the Skywalker family drama, Empire vs. Rebellion, was over. But rather than ending in a good guys have prevailed way (Return of the Jedi), the rich universe this franchise has created is still open and will move forward. This is the film that looks back at our nostalgia of Star Wars and says, “You have played your part. Now is the time to bow out gracefully and let the changes sweep over the franchise.”

Maybe even more broadly speaking, Rian Johnson has managed to take the nostalgia craze of the last ten years and say it is time to move forward. The return of franchises in films for millennials and Gen X’ers, Transformers, Indiana Jones, etc… they all brought back the memories and feelings of the original material. The Last Jedi though takes it that to the next crucial step. It is time to move forward. Much as Luke asks Rey what it means to be a legend, perhaps we should ask what does it mean to hold on to our childhood heroes and franchises?

On a personal level, I don’t know if The Last Jedi will become my favorite Star Wars film, but at this point, I can honestly say it is the most important Star Wars film. The universe we’ve witnessed from the first film, from the time we were kids, now truly feels wide open. The fate of a galaxy no longer hangs on the actions of a single family, but now hope has been placed in anyone who is willing to fight for what is right. For a rebellion. I am beyond excited to see where the franchise goes from here.

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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

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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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