Podcast Recommendations

Podcasting is like radio for the 21st century, and after initial skepticism, I have become a big fan. Some podcasts I especially enjoy are:

Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns and Jared Byas discuss the Bible with open and inquiring minds. Guests have included Rachel Held Evans, Austen Hartke, Miguel de la Torre, Xavier Ramey, Wil Gafney, and dozens of other Biblical and theological scholars, writers, bloggers, preachers, and speakers. Highly recommended for anyone who is on a faith journey but who also appreciates intellectual rigor.

Queerology 

This is another religion-related podcast. The tagline is “A podcast about faith and being.” Matthias Roberts begins every episode by asking his guest(s) this question: “How would you say you identify, and how has your faith helped shape that identity?” It’s a great way to get the conversation rolling! Matthias and his guests primarily talk about faith and queerness with intelligence and compassion.

Clear+Vivid

For the past twenty or so years, Alan Alda’s focus has been on science communication, and that is the primary theme of his podcast. His guests include an array of scientists, professors, actors, communicators, and of course som appearances by his co-actors from M*A*S*H. Enjoyable, informative, and frequently quite humorous.

Dear Hank & John

This is a collaborative venture between Complexly (makers of educational YouTube content like Crash Course, SciShow, and Healthcare Triage, just to name a few) and WNYC (New York Public Radio). Brothers Hank and John Green “answer your questions, give you dubious advice, and bring you all the latest news from Mars and AFC Wimbledon.” How many others podcasts bring you all that? Mostly light-hearted and sometimes very silly. Even though entertainment is the main goal, there is a lot of genuinely good information here. Oh, and Hank likes to talk about poop.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

Another Complexly production, this one is considerably more serious than Dear Hank & John. Author John Green reviews “facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” In every episode, John brings together two different (and I mean REALLY different) things to review. Examples: Hot Dog Eating Contest and Chemotherapy, Prom and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad. Be forewarned: John can make you cry. The episode “QWERTY Keyboard and the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō” really had me in tears for both its strange beauty and its sadness.

What Should We Do With This Problematic Book?

I read The Christian Century, which carries the tagline “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” In the current issue (June 3, 2020), in an article with which I largely agree, Dorothy Sanders Wells writes, “[T]here’s a difference between the Bible describing something and condoning it.” She is talking about slavery and ideas of racial purity. Her claim is that using the Bible to justify slavery and racism is a misuse of the text.

But it’s pretty clear that the Bible does condone slavery. It does condone racism. When you read opposing arguments leading up to the Civil War, both slaveholders and abolitionists tried to use the Bible to support their cause, and it’s clear that the slaveholders were on much more solid ground Biblically than the abolitionists. All the way through the Old and New Testaments, slavery is an accepted part of life, with considerable rules as to how it is to be conducted and no allowance for its abolition. Likewise with racism. The overwhelming sentiment throughout the Bible is “Judah first!” Even those passages that urge the Israelites to treat foreigners fairly do not go so far as to treat them equally.

Progressive Christians use this “describe, not condone” mentality with regards to other problematic Biblical texts as well. I have read gay and trans Christians dancing around the so-called “clobber passages”—those verses used against them—in an effort to soften the message, but to borrow an unhappy phrase from the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church, it really does seem in the Bible that “God hates fags.” No matter how we try to read our progressive viewpoint into it, the Bible remains a misgynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, racist text.

So what are we to do with this? Do we throw the whole thing out? I happen to think the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book, both in and of itself and because of the oversized roles it has played in history. I do not advocate throwing it out. But I do advocate acknowledging its shortcomings.

 

Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

The Persistence of Peanuts

I am a big fan of the comic strip Peanuts. I had dozens of the little paperback collections when I was a kid. There was a rather dense book of theology that I found in my grandpa’s store called The Parables of Peanuts (by Robert L. Short), and it featured many reprints of the cartoons. I could have just looked at the cartoons and skipped the text, but I have never been able to cheat my way through a book. I am a cover-to-cover reader, including the acknowledgements and all the other dull beginning and end bits. (Okay, I do sometimes make exceptions when it comes to academic works with massive numbers of citations.) When my grandparents gifted me a copy of The Parables of Peanuts, I insisted on reading the text that went along with the cartoons, even though I was far too young to understand it. There I was in grade school, reading about Kierkegaard, Barth, and others, not really absorbing what I was reading, but enjoying it nevertheless.

Maybe that was the start of my love of theology. Linus was my favorite Peanuts character by a wide margin, and he was unquestionably the theologian of the gang. Who can forget Linus reciting the Christmas story from Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas? I always thought of myself as a bit of a Linus. The philosopher. The good student. The nerd. The eccentric who carried a security blanket and believed in the Great Pumpkin.

In recent years, I checked out and read every volume of The Complete Peanuts (by Fantagraphics Books) from the library. (I’d love to own the whole set except [a] It would cost a lot of money and [b] I have no place to put all 26 volumes.) From Snoopy I learned about the Red Baron. From Linus I first heard the words “sincere” and “hypocritical.” Because of Schroeder I know December 16th is Beethoven’s birthday. I know the meaning of “pantophobia” and what a “fussbudget” is because of Lucy. I feel Charlie Brown’s pain, and agree with him that the laughter of children can be the cruelest sound on earth.

A year or two ago, I reread my old copy of The Parables of Peanuts. Kierkegaard still confuses me. Maybe I’ll never know as much about theology or philosophy as Linus.  But Linus, like all the Peanuts characters, had his own problems. He never saw the Great Pumpkin, and could never give up his security blanket. Miss Othmar was always beyond his reach. Lucy never won Schroeder’s love.  Snoopy never caught the Red Baron. And Charlie brown never kicked the football before Lucy yanked it away from him. But they all kept trying. I like to think they are still trying.

Religion: Who Cares?

3 religious books - YouTube thumbnail

In my last blog post, I talked about how little thought people actually put into their religion, even as those same people claim religion is the most important thing in their lives. A recent article in The Christian Century confirms this problem in a longitudinal study of emerging adults and their beliefs. (Seven Spiritual Beliefs of Young Adults) What emerges from the study is that those studied have the sense that they can trust their own instincts about religion, morality, and spirituality without giving the matter any real thought.

I can’t help but see this same trust in personal instinct in the way Mr. Trump approaches…well, everything. He believes his own gut feelings have more validity than the word of experts in any given field. We see this clearly in his daily COVID-19 briefings. The current tendency to dismiss expert advice is not limited to Trump. Is this prioritizing of one’s own inner sense over evidence and expert testimony a symptom of our culture’s longtime conviction of American exceptionalism? Or is it a recent phenomenon?

With regard to emerging adults and their relation to religion, the fact that they trust their own instinct to form a personal belief system may be a sign of the fading importance of religion. As the article states, “[A]ttaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort.” If people are unwilling to put in that effort, the result is an uninformed belief system. In a country that consistently gives privileged status to religion, we either need to take the time to formulate intelligent decisions about religion, or acknowledge that religion isn’t that important after all and take away its position of privilege.

Choosing My Religion

“Above all else, a god needs compassion.” – James T. Kirk

There are a lot of people pounding their Bibles, using it to justify whatever pet cause they have in mind, claiming they have the right to do whatever it is they want to do in the name of their Freedom of Religion. These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.” Most of these people put more thought into what color socks to wear than they do into their religion.

Stop and think for a moment: Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? Go further: What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all of these questions in one short blog post. In fact, I’m not really able to answer them at all, because they are for you to answer. Too often, we—all of us—don’t want to do the heavy thinking. It’s hard. When someone, or some system, comes along that promises to do the thinking for us, it’s tempting to jump at the offer. I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty. Absolutely we need to listen to experts. We need to learn from the words of the wise people who have come before us. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed. Then we need to think.

This applies to politics, to our jobs, to how we manage our daily lives, and to our choice of religion. Because it is a choice. Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

Bible Thoughts

One of Roger Ebert’s movie rules is that whenever two characters are talking and one of them quotes the Bible, the other will immediately respond with book, chapter and verse, as if everyone in the world had the Bible memorized. I’ve noticed this too, including in one of my favorite musicals, Guys & Dolls. Memorizing Bible passages is a neat parlor trick, and can make one appear intelligent, like people who randomly quote Shakespeare but never read his plays, but mere memorization does equal understanding.

Worse, memorizing quotes to support a pet belief or bias—prooftexting—weaponizes the Bible in a manner that is misleading and dangerous. You want support for slavery? It’s in there. You want some “proof” that homosexuality is a sin? It’s there. In short, if you need backup for just about any prejudice you may harbor, you can find it in the Bible if you look hard enough and don’t worry about the larger context.

It was only a few generations ago that slaveholders turned to the Bible to justify their inhumane “peculiar institution.” Abolitionists were hard-pressed to find any Biblical support for their cause. Now we look back at those slaveholders waving their Bibles and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?” Now Mike Pence and a whole band of anti-gay pastors are pounding their Bibles to justify their homophobia. The current trend among this crowd is to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on gays, claiming it is punishment from God, and using the Bible as “proof.” There will come a day—not soon enough—that the world will look back on these folks and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?”

 “The portrayal of the Bible as a source of infallible truth does not arise from a reading of the Bible itself, but is a monstrous imposition upon it…Perhaps the greatest irony in the history of the Bible is that it itself has so often been treated as an idol, and venerated with a reverential attitude while its message is ignored.” (John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism at Yale University, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition, p. 393)

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Hymns

2 hymnals

A big part of my job at church revolves around the praise band. I have a fun time playing with the band (on keys, bass, banjo, whatever), but I confess that praise music really isn’t my bag. There are very few contemporary Christian artists I would choose to listen to in my spare time just because I enjoy their music. (Lauren Daigle is one exception that springs to mind, and maybe I Am They, but these are definitely exceptions.) I grew up the son of a Methodist organist and the grandson of a Lutheran organist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I prefer the traditional hymns. Beyond personal preference, though, I’ve always been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why I find the old hymns so much more meaningful than contemporary worship choruses. Undeniably, our somewhat dated church hymnal is filled with archaic language and non-PC lyrics. And musically, most of the well-known hymns are at least at formulaic and repetitive as the songs I could hear on Sirius’s “The Message” channel.

This article from Christian Century magazine (November 16, 2010) comes as close as anything I’ve read to voicing my feelings. “I understand the value of praise choruses for those who find them more accessible than hymns. But I doubt that anyone will be singing ‘Our God Is an Awesome God’ on a deathbed. The problem isn’t…the lyrics, but its lack of gravitas.” – M. Craig Barnes

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-10/closing-hymns

 

No One Is Alone

Psalm 139

“You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight

I look behind me and you’re there,
Then up ahead and you’re there too—

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?”
The Message

The words of the Psalmist are calming, but also cautionary. On the one hand, it’s nice to know I am not alone. What greater comfort could there possibly be than to be assured that an all-powerful God is by my side? It’s like having the ultimate bodyguard!

But there is a catch. This constant companion knows me and my secrets, even the ones I would rather remain unknown. No, there is nowhere I can go to avoid the Lord. I am never out of the Lord’s sight. Those little things I think will not be noticed? They are noticed! Little transgressions I think I can get away with—I can’t.

I am reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, Into the Woods. As has been the case with me and many Sondheim shows, I didn’t care for Into the Woods the first time I saw it. (I’m talking about the stage production, not the movie, which I still haven’t seen.) But I knew from experience that Sondheim sometimes requires repeated watching-listening-reading-thinking. You could easily see Into the Woods and come away with little more than, “Well, that was a fun retelling of some classic fairy tales!” That’s not wrong, but that’s also not all there is.

Take these lyrics:

“No one is alone
Truly
No one is alone”

Nice, right? Yes, but…

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.”

We are not alone, and that comes with a responsibility. Our words and actions act as guides to those around us, so we must be careful. No one is alone. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Children see. The Lord sees.

No one is alone. Be comforted, but also be careful.