Thursday, May 25, 2006

Award Week

Warning: This is a blatant boast-post. Please ignore if you hate this sort of thing.

It began on Tuesday night, at Jacob's orchestra concert. The elementary orchestra played--more or less in the keys of D and G Major--and a few students did solos. Granted, standards were not especially high. But when our boy sounded the first notes of his solo, it was fun to watch the other parents' jaws drop. Jacob played even better than he does at home, which might suggest the virtues of playing conditions that do not involve dishes clanking and little brothers running around.

Then, on Thursday, I attended the Fuller Seminary awards convocation. No big surprises here. I knew I had received a Brehm Fellowship since, well, that's how we've been paying my tuition all year. Still it was a nice occasion and I enjoyed getting some props from the be-robed Fuller faculty. That's me up there with President Mouw and my fellow Brehmmie, Eric Jacobsen. Really. It is. Stupid flash.

Next up: Mia. Friday morning at 8 a.m. was middle-school awards "chapel." It was less a chapel than an occasion on which middle schoolers could enjoy screaming and cheering for their classmates with impunity. Mia had no idea that she was getting an award, but fortunately, the school had notified her mom and dad, so we were there. To keep the secret from Mia, we had to come up with blatant lies about "having a meeting" that morning in order to explain why we were dressed and ready so early. Each teacher gave an award to one student in each subject in each grade level. Mia, all our geeky math-and-science friends will be happy to learn, got the seventh grade science award, and a shiny bit of atom-shaped bling-bling that I proudly wore as a tie-tack the rest of the day.

And last but not least, the rumors have now been confirmed. Deb's book So Much More was chosen by Christianity Today magazine to receive an Award of Merit for 2006 in the apologetics/evangelism category. Whoo hoo! It's great for Deb as a young whipper-snapper writer to be among a hoary assembly of authors the likes of N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Robert Wuthnow, Eugene Peterson, and other old white guys.

That's it this week. But Pip's award assembly is coming up soon. Last year he got best "Christian Attitude." Let's hope he's got the spiritual resources to deal with a) his insufferably self-pleased parents and siblings and b) a house whose current state of upheaval guarantees that the Rienstra family will win no housekeeping accolades anytime soon.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

This moment in SoCal Composite Culture brought to you by Sun Valley

Just around the corner from our house there is a little strip mall, which includes a small "Donut Inn." The thing is, it only sells donuts in the morning. The rest of the day and into the evening it's a Taqueria, selling tamales and other south-of-the-border food. Lately, business has not been good, I'm guessing. Maybe it's got something to do with the imagined menu: hot chili eclairs and sugar-glazed enchiladas. So not long ago, to drum up business, the Donut Inn procured a fellow we've nicknamed Luigi, obviously a veteran of the brutal Pizza Wars. He's a plasticine advertising gimmick which they put out on the curb every morning to entice people into the restaurant.
You can almost hear him, can't you: "Hola! You a-gonna have-a the burrito con refritos?"

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Fifth-Grade Fears

We went to Jacob's fifth grade Open House this week. Along with the art projects and science experiments and US state reports, each member of his class was required to display a personal profile, which included informative lists such as "things I like," "my favorite foods," and "what I'm scared of." Turns out that fifth grade boys are afraid of some pretty typical things: bad grades, car crashes, the boogie man, and so on. The girls have similar anxieties, but they're more willing to include creaturely horrors; we saw lots of references to spiders and snakes. Most interestingly -- or humorously, given the emphasis the school puts on spelling -- we learned that within this community of very evangelical Christians, a fair number of Jacob's 10 year old female classmates are terrified "Satin." That's right, Satin.

We decided the little gals probably meant that they were afraid of... you know, Lucifer -- the Tempter, the Enemy, head boss of Moloch, Mammon, and Mulciber, the Prince of Darkness.

But I admit, bridesmaid's dresses are pretty scary, too.

(Can't tell if this one is the product of Satin himself or one of his nefarious minions, Taffeta and Crinoline.)

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." - Martin Luther

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Luke 14:23 or something like it

Our imminent departure from Southern California (only a few short weeks) is prompting us more and more to savor each day, and to note those moments that have a distinctive Sun Valley or Fuller flavor. Here's one from last week:

It was a gorgeous spring day in Pasadena last Thursday, and Debra and I decided to hold our class outdoors in Barker Commons. We had a lively discussion about prayer, and it seemed no one's attention was too distracted by the sights (and smells) of the nearby rose garden. It helped that the commons was mostly quiet during class. But as we concluded class, hungry seminary students began to gather noisily around us, forming a queue behind some gigantic kitchen pots. I hadn't noticed how those pots got there, but I knew what was up: it was a curry day. Woo hoo!

One of our wonderful librarians, BJ Dabhade, regularly cooks up gigantic pots of authentic Indian food. He sets them down in Barker Commons and then he wanders around the highways and byways of campus inviting demanding that folks come and eat what he has prepared.

"Come on!" he told our class, "You've got to eat something for lunch! There's plenty of food. Come on!"

We got in line, and after BJ offered a loud and enthusiastic grace, we enjoyed a meal of saffron rice, stewed vegetables, chicken curry and excellent fellowship. All flavored with a hint of eschatological feasting.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Consumer Culture & the Catechumenate

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Dell deChant's Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture. Part of why I read this book is for a class project, doing a cultural comparison between our own time and the 2nd- 4th centuries of the common era (see previous post here).

Against those who suggest that America is becoming more and more secular, deChant argues -- persuasively, I think -- that it is, in fact, more and more religious. But not in the traditional sense of religion as we understand it. We think of religion as a system that locates the ground of being in the transcendent realm. America's religion, deChant argues, is cosmological; the great force that must be understood through myth and appeased through ritual is not Nature, but the Economy. Yes, that's right. When you go buy something, especially to do your part as an American to buoy the economy, you are pouring out an oblation to the gods.

DeChant expertly (and humorously) identifies the "sacred" stories that are conveyed through film, TV, and mass media advertising; and the ritual activities we perform, i.e. watching sports on TV, going shopping at the mall, etc.

The field of religious studies always looks at the way communities of faith shape time. DeChant suggests that the primary way in which our culture shapes time is not the agrarian calendar (born of an ancient cosmological religiosity), nor the Christian calendar. Rather, he says, we have an entire economic calendar organized around economic festivals -- holy days where we are "liberated from the profane realm of work and production" and are ushered into the "sacred times and climes of uninhibited acquisition-consumption-disposal." As you might guess, the "Santa" holiday is the primary festival in this calendar (lasting for an entire month). The rest of the calendar, based on consumer spending rates throughout the year, includes the Major Holy Days of Valentine's Day and Easter, the Secondary Holy Days of Super Bowl Sunday, President's Day, the "Back-to-School" festival, and numerous minor holy days and feast days such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

DeChant argues that our current society is much more like ancient urban/pagan societies where the sacred manifests itself "through diversity rather than uniformity, with rituals related to many gods and spirits that influence every apsect of daily life. Religion is not a separate realm within society, but an aspect of every cultural activity. To participate in culture is to be religious."

So whether we like it or not, aware of it or not, we are part of this culture and its explicitly religious dimension. A dimension, need we say it, that is decidedly un-Christian. The question then, for those who follow Jesus, is this: to what extent are we called to separate ourselves from this culture and its permeating pagan economic religiousity? To what extent must we reject these ritual activities that affirm trust in a god other than the One true God? To what extent must we as the Church form our communities through practices, stories, and understandings of time that are counter-cultural?

In the back of my head as I'm reading this book is a list of professions that the early church saw as incompatible with the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ. This list is found in the early 3rd century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These professions include many that were just part of everyday culture -- but because that everyday culture was thoroughly imbued with religious meaning, these occupations were seen as infected with idolatry: prostitutes and pimps, idol sculptors and painters, actors, teachers, gladiators, athletic trainers, musicians and dancers, magicians, hairdressers, fortune-tellers, soldiers, those in authority (wearing purple).

So after all this what I'm wondering is this: If the Church had a genuinely counter-cultural catechumenate process in place today, what sorts of professions would we deem incompatible with the life of discipleship to Jesus? If DeChant is right about the economic/cultural religion of America, what occupations are infected with the idolatry of the system? I've got some ideas. What are yours?

(By the way, do a click on the picture of the book to see it up close. Worth the paperback price by itself.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The side-effects of teaching Homiletics

I've been teaching homiletics at Fuller for a couple years now, and it's one of the most enjoyable things I do here. I was reminded of this again last night as I heard students in my Wednesday night class preach two outstanding sermons - one written under some personal duress. Both sermons were thoughtful, practical, honest; they stayed close to the text, and were filled with carefully considered, imagination-shaping language. And then the students had some insightful things to say in critique of their own (and each others') work as we discussed the sermons in the second part of class. More often than not, this is my experience here, and it gives me hope for the church.

Hope which is not always confirmed in my Sunday sojourns to various SoCal churches. Not so many weeks ago our family went to a culturally significant megachurch. Much of the service was quite good (and as a bonus, we heard one of my favorite gospel singing groups, Take Six). While the sermon itself (the primary pastor was not preaching) was well-delivered, I was troubled by the persistent transactional language used to describe our relationship with God. We give our lives to God (by saying the Jesus prayer), and God gives us eternal life. The pastor very much wanted, at the close of his message, to seal the deal. It's salvation as understood by a community shaped by consumerist values.

Troubling as that was, it was nothing compared to what we experienced a few weeks ago at a prominent Pasadena church, where I endured 30 minutes of a talk (I can't even call it a sermon) before I did something I've never done before: I walked out right in the middle. It was apparant from the outset that the preacher was going to avoid actually preaching -- he telegraphed his homiletical theology in his preparatory prayer by asking that God bless "this little bit of information to help us live better lives this week." That's what a sermon is? Not the living Word of God? Not the presence of Jesus Christ? Just "a little bit of information?" Anyway, I decided to listen hard for what God wanted to say to me just the same. After a half-hour of scripture-neglecting, simplistic self-help slop, targeted to a very small demographic sliver of those assembled, what God said to me was "you should be pretty angry that my hungry people, who come here to be fed, get this instead." I sat there getting more and more steamed as the preacher kept jabbering on, until I finally realized that sitting there was doing me more spiritual harm than good. So I gathered up the kids (who had completely zoned out), and went to the car. We listened to Prairie Home Companion on the way home. It wasn't church, but it was better for our souls.

(The picture, by the way, is entitled "St. Peter Preaching." Note the two snoozers in the first row, and the fellow in the back whose eyes are lifted to heaven as if to say "Help him, Jesus." Hmmm. Maybe sub-standard preachers (and preachees) are not an altogether new thing.)