Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Not a fan of cats...

the musical or the snotty domestic nuisance...thanks Johan VanSummeren.
(The cat survived just fine.)

Jim and Casper Go to Church - Review

I read this little book published by the Barna group. Not too impressed by it, but some insights were helpful. In the main, don't be a jerk to other people. Here's my review for class:

Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, a pentecostal minister and copy-writing atheist respectively, visit 12 churches in about 2 months to get an outsider's view of church events. Jim serves as Matt's guide through a broad yet unrepresentative collection of “evangelical1” churches. Matt's insights move from the petty to the incisive as a thoughtful atheist shares his piece. Jim endeavors to remain objective and is largely successful, however he does let his slip show in the selection of churches as well as his comments regarding certain theological issues, ministry practices, and in the case of the pentecostal churches they visit - everything, as he openly admits in a “warning: loss of objectivity” tag. The book lives up to its goal in that it provides a platform for an outside voice to give honest critique of church activities and a frank dialogue to be carried out on paper.
The main critique of the book is in the premise motivating the venture. This premise can be illustrated by the answer to the following question: For whom is the Sunday morning church service? There are at least two answers, perhaps more, but in the main one can answer: for Christians; otherwise one could answer: for everybody (and anybody) who would like to come. The authors/publishers are of the latter persuasion while this reviewer is of the former. While Henderson does begin to address this in his epilogue, by then 150+ pages have been written on the observations of the pair critiquing church services. Consider if one were to take an aspiring bow-hunter to an ice-cream making seminar. Obviously the two subjects do not necessarily overlap and should the bow-hunter object to the befouling of his scent with sugar and eggs and the like, we are not likely to change the recipe for ice cream because of his concerns – valid as they may be for bow hunting deer. The absurdity of this scenario is present for the 'church is for christians crowd' in this text.
If one were to admit that the primary purpose of a church service is not the assimilation of outsiders into the community, but for the building up, training, and encouraging of the members, than many of the critiques of the book ring hollow as they are out of context. The surprising thing about the dialogue is that as Casper finds so many elements foreign to himself, one is left wondering why he does not explicitly say - “Oh, yeah, that's because I don't belong here.” Perhaps this sounds unduly harsh but while he should not be discriminated against while entering these church meetings, he should feel the part of the alien as these churches are groups of people (supposedly) united by belief and experience of which he shares neither. There are a few moments in the book where this realization comes to the fore but mainly in a small “house church” (a gathering of 15 people in a house to “do church”) in San Diego. Ironically this is his home town and he is personal friends with many of the people in attendance. Quite the scene for dissociation.
Furthermore, if one were to admit that the church service is intended for Christians, not the general public, the sermon takes on a different role. Throughout the book, the reader is left wondering – What is the purpose of the sermon? With so much emphasis built into the order of worship (which was startlingly consistent between the spectrum of churches visited) with the sermon the supposed climax, to what end are those words spoken? Many of the comments in the text focused on the presentation, emotional manipulation, ethical dilemmas, and biblical references of these sermons. Little thought is given to the purpose of them until Henderson's epilogue. In one instance, at “The Bridge” in Portland, OR – the church mentioned that this reviewer is most eager to visit after reading the book, the “sermon” was given in such a way as to allow continued conversation and interaction in and with the congregation, such that 'dialogue' rather than 'monologue' would be the best description. The crux of the matter regarding sermons does come in Henderson's epilogue when he says:
“ basic question for pastors and Christians of all kinds: Are we in the preaching business or the people-changing business?”
Sadly, Henderson does not realize the false dichotomy he presents, and although he has served in “ministry” for three decades, does not understand the fundamental means of ministry to God's people – the preaching of the Gospel. His statement above offers that preaching and “changing people” (presumably for the better) are two different things. Perhaps they overlap but not necessarily or directly. But one must ask: How shall I change people? If people need changing, which must be an assumption of Henderson, how can I or anyone else change them? Perhaps one could coerce them through fear, bribery, intimidation, etc? Obviously that would not produce the changes desired – to love God and neighbor, seeking first God's Kingdom. But this desired end requires a change of the heart, of the inner motivations of a person, and who can change the desires of a persons heart? Clearly applying some law or social code external to people will not change them. Neither will teaching, as educated sinners will emerge from ignorant sinners. Henderson believes that by serving people the experience of being loved will change them to follow Jesus. While this is half true it suffers as the sole means of ministry. While Jesus did serve those around him, he also preached2, which is something Henderson specifically misses3. Have they not read what Paul wrote in Romans 1:16-17?
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.”
Surely both serving others and preaching this life changing Gospel is necessary in the ministry of the Church? Surely a maturation of perspective is allowed in 2000 years since Christ, whereby culturally specific forms may be employed – just as they were employed then? It is here, puzzling over the usefulness of the endeavor that Henderson and Casper leave this reviewer. Perhaps that was part of the point.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Review

I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death this past weekend. Wow. Perspective altering. Here's my first stab at a review/report/schwatever if you're interested:

Riveting, necessary, and incisive are all words that could qualify Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and yet fall short of this superb work.
Neil Postman's thesis is that the medium of communication enables and constrains the message it carries, so much so that one could say “the medium is the message.” Postman examines how information and meaning are conveyed, received, and understood via different forms of media and reviews a history of typographic, telegraphic, photographic, and videographic media. Within each medium he surveys the status of public discourse and describes its strengths and weaknesses, clearly favoring the “Age of Typography” and the necessary life of the mind with its rigorous rationality. The emphasis of the text is as the subtitle suggests on “public discourse in the age of show business,” where the groundwork of the epistemology of print in the early chapters exposes the banal amusements of television. Postman shows how the television is the ultimate expression of the tripartite sins of telegraphy - the irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence of information and their associated thoughts – and thus the natural end of the design of the medium is solely entertainment. The sinister turn is that the medium itself is inherently trivializing yet enticing – who would turn away endless or limitless pleasure? So much is this threat present that all forms of serious and important matter in society have been trivialized by television (Postman provides examples from politics, law, education, and religion to name a few,) as the whole of the culture is subsumed in the mire of thoughtless (dis-)engagement. It is from this precipice of unconscious cerebral death through entertainment that Postman hopes to retrieve us. Tragically, the only restoration apparent to him is through the system of education which is already embracing this cancer as of the 1980's, and in this reviewer's time has accepted it whole hog.
The power of Postman's work in “pulling back the curtain,” as it were, on our culture is almost too much to move beyond. For the reviewer's generation, the obvious analogue is found (shamefully) in the film: The Matrix. Wherein the main character is shown that his entire experience has been contrived and that reality, as it actually exists is something quite different from his current understanding of the world due to some technology (seemingly) beyond his control.
This example highlights how the book is valuable for the student of culture and the student of communicating cross-culturally. First, as an examination of American culture at different moments, under varying dominant media, one can see how cultures operate in the marketplace of ideas. The implications of different media are explored and the reader is opened to the possibility of such examinations being applicable to other aspects of culture. The second immediate value for students of culture was alluded to above, but explicitly is that: Americans are confronted with American culture. This occasion of a critical view of one's own culture provides one a necessary step towards understanding that everyone, everywhere, is enculturated. Everyone is both empowered and encumbered by their own individual and community experience thus affecting how they perceive truth: both in physical and spiritual reality. Here the body blow is felt that television shapes our understanding of the world, and once confronted with this reality, one can begin to think critically about what shapes reality in adjacent cultures.
A possible critique of Postman's work is that it prizes the relics of the modernist era neglecting future advancement of human thought and work. Postman's prize is rationality as expressed in the age of typography, whereas postmoderns find this intellectual utopia inadequate.