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My 2019 Oscar Picks

What a year for movies, and what a disappointment that became this year’s Oscar nominations. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright-snubbed. Several films were left out (Leave No Trace being the most egregious), and others made it that should NOT have (Bohemian Rhapsody for BP, Vice for BP, Skin for live short, Animal Behavior for animated short). I watched all the movies for Best Picture, all 15 short films, four of the five documentaries, and a few other stray 2018 movies that scored nominations. That means that, for the first time, I’m able to have an informed opinion! But not on all the categories. Where I haven’t seen the majority of the nominees, I haven’t voted. That leaves me with 19 selections.

These are preferences for what should win, not predictions for what will win. The only one I will rank fully is Best Picture. As a courtesy, though, I have listed my second favorite in each award.  Speaking of favorites…

 

Related image

Best Picture: The Favourite, then, A Star is Born

Image result for the favourite

Best Picture, Ranked:

1. The Favourite
2. A Star is Born
3. Roma
4. Black Panther
5. BlacKkKlansman
6. Green Book
7. Vice
8. Bohemain Rhapsody

Actor in a Leading Role
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody, then, Christian Bale, Vice

Actress in a Leading Role
Olivia Colman, The Favourite, then, Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

Actress in a Supporting Role
Emma Stone, The Favourite, then, Amy Adams, Vice

Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali, Green Book, then, Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Directing
Alfonso Cuarón, then, Yorgos Lanthimos

Adapted Screenplay only 2/5 😦
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
First Reformed, Paul Schrader, then, Roma, Alfonso Cuarón

Foreign Language Film only 1/5 😦
Capernaum, Lebanon
Cold War, Poland
Never Look Away, Germany
Roma, Mexico
Shoplifters, Japan

Animated Feature only 1/5 😦
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Original Score
Black Panther, then, Mary Poppins Returns

Original Song
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born, then, “I’ll Fight,” RBG

Documentary Short
Period. End of Sentence., then, Black Sheep

Cinematography 
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan, then, A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Best Documentary Feature
Minding the Gap, then, RBG

Production Design
Black Panther, then, Roma

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, then, A Star Is Born

Costume Design
The Favourite, then, Black Panther

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, then, Vice

Sound Editing
Black Panther, then, A Quiet Place

Animated Short Film
Late Afternoon, then, Bao

Live Action Short
Marguerite, then, Fauve

Makeup and Hairstyle only 1/3 😦
Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

Visual Effects only 1/5 😦
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Thanks for reading! Be sure to comment all the reasons why I’m wrong!

Image result for the favourite dancing gif

Some more links

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• If you want an example of how the church should respond to #Metoo or #Churchtoo, the select SBC leaders in this write-up will do. Russell Moore’s full response is here and you must read it.

• Looking for the best theology books of 2018? Jonathan Ogden’s best albums of 2018? NPR’s best albums of 2018? (They have an… unexpected taste). The Times’s best books, fiction and non-fiction, of 2018? How about Obama’s favorite books, movies, and music of 2018?

• The Democrats lost the Senate in 2018, despite a ‘blue wave,’ due to a brutally unfair election map. Now, the tables are turning in 2020.

• Things my marriage and family counseling class didn’t prepare me for: DNA testing customer service. Things a DNA testing customer service class doesn’t prepare you for: marriage and family counseling.

• T.K. Coleman: Be a coach, not a cult leader:

When you get your kicks from being seen as the great and glorious guru, you become the kind of leader who instructs people in a way that makes them more dependent on your guidance. After people meet with you, they mostly feel in awe of how phenomenal you are. They see you as a rock star.

When you get your kicks from helping people wake up to the possibility of their own brilliance, you become the kind of leader who inspires people in a way that makes them less reliant on you, more trusting of their inner judgment, and always open to learning from new people. After people meet with you, they mostly feel appreciation for the increased sense of clarity and confidence they have. They see you as an ally.

This is the fundamental difference between a coach and a cult leader.

The Lifesized Embroidered Figures of Liisa Hietanen:

• YES, THIS: Trevin Wax: You Don’t Have to Have a Well-Formed Opinion on Everything:

In order to de-escalate tensions in our society and lower the temperature of our civil discourse, we can demonstrate the humility that says: “I haven’t really studied that issue,” or “I’m not an expert on the most important facts and considerations in that debate,” or “I don’t think I’ve weighed the different sides and looked into all the relevant points yet, and so I don’t have a strong opinion.”

• “Progressives are emulating Trump and reality is leaking from American life.”

9 Artists on How to Make a Living From Your Art

Data Maps the Impact of Where a Child Grows Up. Lifetime success rates of children raised in certain areas, geo-located and you can sort by race, gender, legal status, income, and so on. Social Mobility is declining; this data is unusually open source; solutions are localized.

• This week only: see the Oscar nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening on PBS online. Only 76 minutes.

With Reverence and Humility

The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906 - Paul Cezanne

Found this today in a commentary on Romans 1. Take these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones to heart.


Let us learn these simple lessons as we move on. We put the creature before the Creator whenever we put any single idea of our own before the revelation of Scripture. I feel like repeating that. To put any idea of our own before Scripture is to be guilty of this very sin of putting the creature before the Creator, our ideas rather than what the Bible says, or what God has revealed. ‘Ah’, we say, ‘but I don’t understand that; I don’t see how God would be fair if He did this and that’. That may be what you say; and it may be what you think. The question is, What is revealed? What does God say about Himself? My friends, we are not meant to understand all we read in the Scriptures. It is beyond us. Our minds are too small, and we are born in sin. We come to this as little children, not to comprehend it all, but to worship and to praise, and to receive it. And if we start putting our ideas or difficulties or thoughts or feelings before the Scripture, we have already partly become guilty of this terrible, serious charge of putting and worshipping the creature before the Creator.

Let us, therefore, always approach the Word of God with reverence and with humility. Let us never come to read it without praying to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Let us come to learn, not to have our prejudices confirmed, or to turn something down. Let us come with open minds. Let us receive the words, lest in our modern fashion we may be guilty of this very thing which the Apostle charges those people of ancient times [Romans 1:21-23]. And above all, let us ever, as we think of Him and talk about Him, remember who He is and what He is. We forget that sometimes, do we not? Perhaps something has been going wrong — we may find ourselves like that man in the seventy-third Psalm, who had been having a hard time while the ungodly were very prosperous and begin to say, ‘Why does God . . .?’ Oh, my dear friends, the next time that thought or feeling arises in your breast, stop for a moment and remember that you are thinking and speaking about the uncorruptible God, this glorious Being, glorious in His holiness, infinity, and majesty! Let us put our hands upon our mouths and be content to wait until He reveals His purpose to us. How dangerous it is to speak, without thinking, about God, the Creator ‘who is blessed forever, Amen.’ Let us stop for a moment! God forbid that we should ever be guilty of speaking about God in a manner that is unworthy!


Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1: The Gospel of God, 387, commenting on Romans 1:18-23.

Painting (unrelated): Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906.

Some Links

Starting today I am going to compile the interesting things I have found on the internet into a list of weekly links. Lots of other people do this because, I figure, it is fun and anyways why not. Maybe I’ll do biweekly links, or maybe I’ll say fortnightly links because Engaging the Culture. Either way, here we go. Use the email subscription box (in the page footer) to get these in your inbox.

• Malcolm Gladwell writes about Marijuana (h/t Rooted top articles of January):

A few years ago, the National Academy of Medicine convened a panel of sixteen leading medical experts to analyze the scientific literature on cannabis. The report they prepared, which came out in January of 2017, runs to four hundred and sixty-eight pages. It contains no bombshells or surprises, which perhaps explains why it went largely unnoticed. It simply stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery.

• More of this please, from TGC, DG, &co. How to Be a Friend at All Times (Even When You Don’t Have Time):

Instead of retreating from friendships when life is busy, or lamenting my lack of picture-perfect friendships, I’m seeking to engage my friends and love them at all times—even when I don’t have time.

• Ross Douthat from NYT recommends these on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. I am halfway through the first article. It is, appropriately, very long. There is so much I didn’t realize about all this.

• Speaking of articles to read back to back: Trump, the first president in a century with no dog, explains why: ‘I don’t have any time. and, conversely, that Trump spends 9 hours per day in ‘executive time’ which is unstructured free time with no work being done. Square that circle, Mick Mulvaney.

• One more time with back-to-back-ers: I’m a geophysicist. My signature fieldwork uniform is bright pink. and, New Illinois hunting law allows hunters to wear blaze pink.

• This (long) essay sparked joy: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of Our Everyday Wonderland.

• The Art of Jacob van Loon 

Jacob van Loon

Jacob van Loon

Jacob van Loon

• Plastic water bottles have an expiration date not because the water expires but because the plastic “will eventually start leeching chemicals into the water.” (h/t Daniel)

• Graphic, very uncomfortable but very necessary, article from ProPublica: In Immigrant Children’s Shelters, Sexual Assault Cases Are Open and Shut:

Across the country, kids are reporting sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters. Alex decided to come forward. He told the shelter two older teens dragged him into a bedroom. There was surveillance video. But Alex’s case wasn’t investigated. His isn’t the only one.

• FiveThirtyEight: 6 Things To Listen For When The 2020 Democrats Talk About Policy. Numbers 4 and 6 especially.

• Quite the concept album.

A Word for God

[A paper for my Intercultural Ministry class at Trinity, responding to this case study from Paul Hiebert.]

Ivan threw up his hands. “What is more important-” he asked his colleague, “that people think of God as ‘ultimate reality.’ or that they think of him as a’ person’ with whom they can communicate? Each of these, by itself, is a half-truth. Yet somehow it seems to me that we must choose between two words that carry these two meanings when we translate the word God into Telugu. What shall we do?”

After joining the Union Bible Society, Ivan had been asked to assist in a new translation of the Bible into Telugu. After settling down in the city of Hyderabad, he began to work with Yesudas, a high-caste convert who was also assigned to the project. Together the two had worked out many of the difficult problems they faced in translating the Bible into this South Indian language. But the most stubborn one remained unsolved. What word would they use for” God”? The choice they made was critical, for the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message. But although there are many Telugu terms for “god,” none conveyed the biblical meaning.

At first Ivan suggested,” Let’s use the term deva. That is the word the people use when they speak of ‘god’ in general terms.”

But Yesudas pointed out, “The devas are the highest form of personal beings, but they are not the ultimate reality. Like all things in the universe, they are maya, or passing phenomena. In the end, they, too, will be absorbed into the ultimate reality or Brahman. Moreover, they do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies. Finally, in Hinduism ‘all life is one.’ In other words, gods, humans, animals, and plants all have the same kind of life. Consequently, devas are not fundamentally different from humans. They are more powerful and live in the heavens. But they sin, and when they do, they are reborn as humans, or animals, or even ants.” Yesudas added. “Hindus claim that devas often come to earth as avatars to help humans in need, but because there is no difference between them it is like kings helping their commoners or saints helping their disciples. We, therefore, can use neither deva or avatar, for both destroy the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.'”

“If that is the case, why not use the term parameshwara?” Ivan suggested. “That means ‘highest of the deities.'”

Yesudas replied, “Yes, but this carries the same connotations as deva. In fact. all Telugu words for ‘god’ implicitly carry these Hindu beliefs! We have no word that means a supreme being who is the ultimate reality and the creator of the universe. Moreover, there is no concept of ‘creation ‘ as found in the Bible. The world itself is an illusion that does not really exist. ”

Ivan took another approach to the problem. “Why not use the concept of brahman itself? After all, brahman is ultimate reality-that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.”

Yesudas objected. “Brahman,” he said, “may be ultimate reality, but it is a force, not a person. True, some philosophers speak of sarguna brahman, of brahman in a personal form. But even he is only a manifestation of nirguna brahman, which is an insular, impersonal force. It makes no sense to say that nirguna brahman reveals itself to gods and humans, just as it makes no sense to say that a dreamer speaks as a real person in his dream. Similarly, humans have no way of knowing about or communicating with nirguna brahman. Moreover, nothing really exists outside of brahman. The heavens and earth are not creations that exist apart from it. They are projections of brahman in much the same way that a dream is a projection of the dreamer. So, in fact, we are all simply manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This destroys the biblical idea of a creator and a real but contingent creation.”

“What shall we do then?” asked Ivan. “Perhaps we could use the English word God or the Greek word Theos and introduce it into the translation. In time the word would become familiar, and it would not carry within it the implicit Hindu theology found in Telugu words.”

“How can we do that?” asked Yesudas. “When we preach in the villages, no one will understand those foreign words. We must use words the people understand . Isn’t that what the early church did when it took the Greek words for ‘god’ and gave them new Christian meanings?”

Ivan counterd, “Even if we do use deva or brahman and try to give them a Christian meaning, they will still be given Hindu meanings by the Hindus. And since the Hindus make up ninety percent of the population, how can a small Christian community maintain its own definitions of these words when the linguistic pressures for accepting the Hindu connotations are so great?”

“Well,” said Yesudas, “we’re back to square one. Should we use deva, or brahman, or ‘God’? We have to use one of these.”

The two discussed the matter for a long time, for they knew that their choice would influence both the evangelistic outreach of the church and also the extent to which the church would understand and be faithful to the biblical concept of God in the next fifty or hundred years. Finally they decided to . . .

###

How can we translate words from one culture and language to another? The answer is less straightforward than it may seem. There is a word in English for “hand,” so there must be a word in our destination language that means the same thing; just find that word, substitute it in, and repeat for each word in the sentence. But languages do not work this way, and words do not work this way. This is the problem faced by Ivan and Yesudas, translators working with Union Bible Society to produce a New Testament translation in Tegulu, a south Indian native language.

This “most stubborn problem” must be solved in some way, because “the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message.” But the problem is not solved easily. Ivan “threw up his hands… what shall we do?” he asks, exasperated, leading them to “discuss the matter for a long time.” In the Tegulu language, they have two words that come close to the English word God. Those words are Brahman and deva. The word Brahman communicates “ultimate reality — that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.” This sounds like the Christian concept of God. But, critically, it leaves out the personal aspect of God. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers, who has thoughts, who has a discrete will, who even experiences something analogous to emotions. The word deva communicates these aspects of “God” that Brahman does not. However, devas are “not ultimate reality, but passing phenomena… they “do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies.” They also “are not fundamentally different from humans” because “all life is one” in Hinduism, so they can be demoted to humans in reincarnation just as humans can be promoted to devas. Yesudas notes that this relationship “destroys the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.’” The words Brahman and Devas are reciprocal failures to convey the English word “God.”

varun-tandon-554591-unsplash

Photo by Varun Tandon on Unsplash

What deeper issue is at stake in this dilemma? The first is the location of meaning in a word. Do words have intrinsic meaning? Or do words take meaning only in their use in a sentence? If words have meaning in themselves, then our language has a sustained set of meanings that are combined according to these meanings. But if words do not have meaning in themselves, then any word can be anything. At this point, many are prone to employ a colorful argument: if words don’t mean “what they mean,” then all language is impossible and nothing means anything! But this slippery slope ignores that people employ words in consistent usages. Even if the meaning of a word is located outside the word, in its use in a clause, it does not for that reason become wholly meaningless and its communicative function wholly arbitrary.

For example, the word “bump” has changed because it has taken a metaphorical usage among social media users. Before, it meant something like “to knock something or someone aside by physical contact.” But now, it has gained an additional meaning that goes like, “to highlight something from the past that had faded from memory.” If meaning is located inside the word — whether the theory is (1) Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as a universal highest form, or (2) theological neo-Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as an unchanging concept in the mind of an unchanging God, or (3) Kantian linguistics, where we deduce that the word’s meaning exists as the result of transcending the noumenal realm through universally-accessible reason — whatever school of thought is taken, they cannot explain that words meanings change in time. Instead, they generate an ethical imperative: you must not change the meaning of words.

In contrast to these essentialist linguistic schemes, a nominalist scheme denies that words have meaning because this meaning cannot be justified ontologically. (In the Medieval period, this had more startling metaphysical implications than just linguistic implications). But I think that these nominalist understandings are also reducing the problem of language. By denying that language has any foundation at all, it escapes the trappings of the other responses, but it fails to provide any constructive answer of its own. Language doesn’t have meaning… so… what? What then? Rather than answer the problem incorrectly, it withholds an answer at all.

My (and my numerous Greek and Hebrew professors’) way of navigating through these extremes is to claim that lexical use is real, observable, and enduring within a cultural context. A good lexicographer will try to catalogue all of these uses, and that’s… that. Their work is done. There is no hunt for an objective meaning to the word, as that is unnecessary, and there is flexibility allowed for change in meaning of a word over time, as that is necessary. (It does take much more work than offering a single definition).

joao-silas-74207-unsplash

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

How does this perspective bear fruit in the dilemma that Ivan and Yesudas face? They do not need to concern themselves with finding the correct translation because the proper focus is to find the correct lexical use. Thankfully, the Bible contains many sentences in which the lexical use of “God” implies an attribute of God in context. Consider God’s appearance to Moses:

Exodus 3:13 Moses said to ____, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The ____ of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 ____ said to him, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

In this example, the reader receives new contextual information about God: the passage can imply many of the same things that the Tegulu term Brahman implies. And yet, because God is speaking, it implies some of the characteristics of deva. Consider another example, from James:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the ______ of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Here the translators must render a Tegulu word for the English word “Father,” which faces the same complications as God because the target culture may interpret “Father” as a biological and material figure. However, when reading this word according to its use in the sentence, the reader gathers that the “Father” does not change (the Brahman tendency) and yet shows his personal agency by giving gifts and by “choosing to give us birth” (the Deva tendency). These examples demonstrate that the lexical use of a word defines its meaning for the reader, even if the word itself does not communicate anything (and even is replaced with a blank).

This works for the simple reason that “God” is always used in some lexical way. There is no sentence with the word “God” and no other words around it. Sentences require an actor and action, and from these we can always learn something about God. What do the Biblical writers predicate of God? We can learn much from this. Similarly, no preacher to the Tegulu speaking population will ever use the word “God” devoid of some context in their preaching. If the Jewish concept of God is basically opposed to the Hindu conception of God, then we should not expect any word to correctly translate the English “God” into Tegulu. In fact, the Jewish concept of God functions as a polemic against exactly the type of conception of God that the Tegulu speakers believe in, such that without the preacher also polemicizing against that conception of God, the audience will not understand the Jewish idea. Rather than fixing our attention on translating the English word God into a Tegulu equivalent that accurately codes our beliefs about God, the translators must popularize verses like Exodus 3:14 and James 1:17, to mention only two. By popularizing these sentences, the lexical use of God as both personal and transcendent will begin to take hold in the minds of the Tegulu speaking people.

There are additional ways to popularize this lexical use. I suggested an example in my discussion board post where we learn the poetic or literary forms that the Tegulu use (they may use in-rhyme more than end-rhyme, or find alliteration more exciting than meter, or something) and popularize the preferred lexical use in that literary form. My favorite example does this into rap from the Twitter account “Augustine of Hiphop.” He raps,

It follows from the faith,
Na it ain’t no eccentricity,
His whatness and his thatness,
they the same: sweet simplicity.

In addition to using the Biblical text to popularize the correct understanding of the meaning of “God,” missionaries like Ivan and Yesudas should consider these additional phrases.

All things considered, how should they translate the word “God”? Brahman and deva would take the same amount of corrective preaching to reach the lexical use of the English word “God.” But instead of trying to shift the lexical categories for these words, a better approach would use “God” as a calque – or better, use Adonai or Jehovah as loanword proper noun names for God, and the Tegulu speaking people will start fresh in understanding the transcendent, unchanging, personal, responsive God who we represent with this silly little English word “God.”

Don’t Lurk

Your biology class lectures happen in an open field. Philosophy class is done while you rock climb. Your major classes are held during competitive team sports. While you practice archery, a professor explains how to write good thesis statements. Who knows the things you can learn about while white water rafting?

Can you imagine a college like this?

Everything is FUN!

Everything is EXCITING!

Nothing is BORING! 

 

A professor told us about this school — supposedly real, though I don’t care enough to research where this college is located or if this characterization is accurate — in class one day. And my mind wandered to how awesome this school would be. How I would be so, so much more happy in this kind of environment than where I am now. But my professor took a different angle. One that has stuck with me.

He said, “You would be so bored, so fast. In a few weeks, you would be over it. College isn’t about entertaining yourself with fun activities; it’s about creating something.”

Yes! This is true… but I am bored, too. Normal college got so boring, so fast. It only took weeks for me to be over it. So maybe I’m making in my own life the mistake that Fun Outdoorsy School is making at an institutional level?

Question: what makes college so boring? Answer: that we aren’t creating anything, anything meaningful. Creative work is our original calling. God has created us to “image” him back to the creation. We do this by working and tending things in this world, ruling over and taking dominion of the created order.

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …

2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. …

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

A task of ordering, shaping, dominating, tending, sorting, and ultimately, creating. It is only because of the Fall that this ordering, working, sorting task becomes tedious and painful. God curses humanity (represented by Adam):

3:17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

This curse applies to all people because Adam and Eve represented all people in this narrative. And so, we too feel the “thorns and thistles” of frustration, pain, suffering, and meaninglessness while we try to fulfill our calling from God to create. But it wasn’t meant to be this way! This is a diversion from the original purpose! We were made to “image” the glory of God in all that we do. And so this creative work is basic to finding meaning in life and to being fulfilled as a human being.

Another angle, less theology this time: Social Media has three types of people. Content Creators are the 1% of users who make and share new content of their own. Interactors are the next 9% who comment, like, or share other people’s content, but they don’t make things of their own. Lurkers are the next 90% who intake Content Creators’ work and Interactors’ interaction with that work, but do nothing with it besides see and enjoy it. They do not share, they do not comment, and they make nothing of their own.

Here are pictures.

Azad Blog 1

The same thing is true in college. In high school you are a Lurker just intaking ideas and information. But college makes you start to Interact with ideas, critique them, argue about their merits, and share them with underclassmen who are starting to wade into the discussions. The ultimate goal is to make you a Content Creator, someone who knows enough about the topic to really contribute new work that other people can take in. This means you have to specialize in one thing, because a 22-year-old doesn’t have the knowledge to speak into more than one debate at a time. So you pick a major and start to work, and work, and work, until you can produce new, quality work of your own.

That’s the point of college. The more time you spend creating something, the less tedious and frustrating and boring it will be. Those classes you hate? They are so painful because you have decided they won’t help you in your creative project. Even if you aren’t sure what that project is, you have a sense, and this History of Chinese Politics class just ain’t it.

(It could be that the class really isn’t helpful, and Liberal Arts colleges suck. Or maybe you just have a bad attitude and refuse to see how the class will help. Probably both.)

All of college boils down to Neil Gaiman’s dictum, “Make Good Art.” But instead of art, it can be anything. Make good biology research. Make good athletic training preparation. Make good philosophy writing. But whatever you do — whatever you do — do not Lurk. Find meaning and fulfillment by doing what you are created to do: create.

🛴

Check out my new playlist on Spotify, “🛴”.

This playlist is ideal for long solo car rides, for background music while studying, and for walking quickly (to the beat!) during the winter, and so, not lollygagging in the cold.

Photo is Albert Einstein as a boy. My friends suggest that either I’m secretly adopted and am his grandson, or that I am his reincarnation. Okay.

The title, 🛴, was the clear favorite over a distant second, 🎠.

Enjoy.

Converted Together?

A fascinating scenario from Paul G. Hiebert, not sure what publication, for my intercultural ministry class. Here, you can read the scenario and my response essay. Also enjoy this photo I found of the forest in Borneo.

borneo forest

Mark looked at the chief and elders before him and at the more than two hundred men, women, and children crowding behind them. “Have they all really become Christians? I can’t baptize them if they don’t each decide for themselves!” he said to Judy, his wife.

Mark and Judy Zabel had come to Borneo under the Malay Baptist Mission to start a new work in the highlands. They spent the first year building a thatched house, learning the language, and making friends with the people. The second year they began to make short treks into the interior to villages that had never heard the gospel. The people were respectful, but with a few exceptions none had shown any real interest in the gospel. Woofak was always around and had been from the beginning. In time he had become a believer, but few of the others took him seriously. He was something of a village maverick. And there had been Tarobo and his wife and four others. By the end of the third year, the worship services were made up of these seven baptized believers, Mark and Judy, a few passersby, and a dozen children.

That year an epidemic had spread through the highlands. For weeks Judy and Mark went through the villages, praying with the sick and dispensing medicines, until they thought they could go on no more. They wept with families faced with death and told them of the God who loved them and had conquered death itself. One village in particular had suffered greatly from the disease. Though the people seemed to appreciate the love shown by the two missionaries, they had shown no particular interest in the gospel.

Three months later, two elders from this village had come to the mission home, wanting to see the missionaries. “Can you come to our village and tell us more about your God?” they asked. “We want to know more about him.”

Mark and Judy were excited. Their many hours on the trail in the rain and the weary days of ministering to the people were bearing fruit. Taking some food, water, changes of clothes, cots and nets, they set out for the distant village.

It was almost dark when they arrived. The village chief invited Mark into the men ‘s long house where all the adult males of the village were gathered. Judy joined the women, who sat in front of their huts discussing the decision the village elders were about to make. She sensed that there had been much discussion in the village before she and Mark had been invited to come. Now there was a feeling of excitement and uncertainty in the air. Some of the women wanted to know more about this new God. Others said that it was best to stay with their ancestors who cared for them in the spirit world, and with the tribal gods who had helped them to be victorious over their enemies in the past. In the long house the chief asked Mark to tell them more about his God. For three hours Mark told the men about the Jesus Way and answered their questions. Then the chief asked Mark to sit down on a log. Mark noticed that the men broke up into smaller groups, each made up of men from the same lineage. For half an hour there was a loud debate as men argued for and against following the new God. The arguments died down, and then the leaders from the various lineages gathered with the chief. Again there was a heated discussion. Finally the chief came to Mark and said, “We have all decided to follow the Jesus Way. We want to be baptized like Woofak and Tarobo.”

Although it was late, neither Mark nor Judy could sleep after the meeting. The decision of the village, especially the way it was made, had caught them totally by surprise. They knew that tribal people often made important decisions, such as moving their villages or raiding neighboring tribes, by discussion and group consensus. But they never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god. All their theological training in their church and Bible College had taught the young missionaries that people had to make personal decisions to become followers of Christ. Here the group leaders had decided for all. What did that mean? Was it a valid decision, especially when it was clear from the debates that some had opposed the choice? How could they baptize the whole village when not all were agreed? Then again, what did it mean in Acts when the jailer believed and Paul immediately baptized him and his whole household? Moreover, if they did not accept the villagers as Christians, the Villagers might return to their old gods. Judy and Mark knew that they had to do something before they left the next day. . .

As Mark and Judy searched for an answer, suddenly the great spirit gong in the men’s long house rang out. Hurrying over to find out what was going on, Mark found the chief and asked him why they were summoning the tribal spirits, now that they had become Christians. “Don’t worry,” the chief said. “We are calling them to tell them to go away because now we have a new God.

Judy and Mark were still uncertain as they finally fell asleep, bone-tired and knowing that they would have to give the chief and the village an answer in the morning.

Hiebert’s scenario involved a missionary couple converting a tribe. The tribal council elders, through much debate, decided to follow the missionary’s (Christian) god rather than the ancestral spirits. Conflicted with the implications of “group conversion,” the missionaries face a dilemma: do they baptize the village, and so assume that each tribe member has been saved? Or, do they wait until each person professes faith in Jesus, and then baptize each person individually?

The dilemma facing this missionary couple depends on two factors, one anthropological, the other theological. First, why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? Second, what is the purpose of the baptism the missionaries have offered? Quickly it becomes apparent that the first question raises meaningful theological questions, and the second meaningful anthropological questions, thus betraying the distinction between these categories in the first place.

Why do the tribal people not understand that salvation is a personal calling? The Hiebert case study characterizes the decision process of the tribe as “a loud debate as men [not women] argued for and against following the new God,” followed by “a heated discussion.” This model of “group consensus” seemed alien to the missionary couple, who “never dreamed that people might use this method to choose a new god.” The missionary couple resists contextualizing the gospel to the tribe’s collectivism. If salvation is primarily a born-again experience in which a single person makes an individual decision to make Christ their personal lord and savior – notice, “a single person,” “an individual decision,” “personal lord and savior,” clauses littered with adjectives stressing the solitary nature of salvation – how can the tribe choose together? Notably, the tribe did not even begin to consider conversion under these terms. It did not occur to them that each and every tribe member could convert, but not all at once. This means that the difference is one rooted anthropologically in the way the tribe is culturally structured.

The missionary couple brings a gospel steeped in individual language not because such framing is necessary to the gospel message, but because their own context has so mediated it to them. Why is salvation a “personal” “choice” to “accept” Christ “into your heart”? Where is that language found in the New Testament? Of course, it is well known that the Sinner’s Prayer is a modern invention, but does the individual salvation upon which it rests also come from modern times? It does. The New Perspectives on Paul movement has gone to great pains to show several closely related ideas about Second Temple Judaism and its social context, relevant here. First, in Second Temple Judaism, Jews did not have “works righteousness” as Protestants are common to claim, in which a person’s good deeds or bad deeds earn their standing before God. Rather, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, and sin rendered one ceremonially unclean so that they could not enter the Temple, and so they were considered “out” of society. This is why the Levitical code contains not only moral injunctions but also chapters upon chapters of instructions on ceremonial cleansing and ritual impurity. Second, from this, it becomes clear that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not “non-works righteousness” in the sense that God has nullified the old system and so now we ourselves individually do not have to work to earn God’s favor. That would nullify a system that never existed. Rather, the nullification is of the legal system itself, so enabling Jews who had the Law and Gentiles who did not to both share in the people of God, the Kingdom of God. This community is a body mediated through the bodies of its members (a concept later stolen and secularized by Hobbes) rising together into one reified being, for which Christ will return.

As a result of this communal understanding of salvation – we enter into a community, which is saved, rather than each person being saved, and then forming a community of the saved – the language of accepting Jesus as “personal lord and savior” or “individual” decision does not make sense. This has not addressed the other outstanding theological problem: that an individual “decision” has been made by “accepting Jesus” as personal lord and savior. (The quotes have been switched from the previous sentence). The simple answer to this is that people do not decide their salvation though it manifestly appears that they do this on the surface. Ephesians 1:11-14 (a passage well understood as collective salvation in the above sense) speaks to God’s choosing, predestining plan to redeem the elect, which manifests itself in our believing upon hearing the gospel and so being marked by the Holy Spirit as a seal. The reason that the New Testament does not use “accept Jesus into your heart” language is because by the time a person does so, Jesus is already in their heart, having orchestrated their accepting him in the first place. The combination of these two perspectives – that salvation is not individual, and salvation is not a decision – should, if thoughtfully considered by the missionary couple, shift their categories in way that reduces their hesitation to baptize the tribal people.

Baptism remains. Could the missionary couple’s understanding of baptism be what holds them back? What other perspective on baptism would rectify the problem? There an irony in the debate between paedobaptists and credobaptists. The former baptizes as an infant, and then does confirmation to be included in the life of the local church; the latter does parent dedication, and then does baptism to be included in the life of the local church. However, baptism in paedobaptist churches and parent dedication in credobaptist churches have similar functions: infant baptism signals God’s promise of election upon that child, into which they will grow as they are raised to be a Christian; parent dedication signals the parents’ promise to raise the child as a Christian along with the congregation’s help. In both cases, the event that takes place at about 1 year old signals that the child will live under the authority of a Christian household and be raised in the local church; the even that takes places around 15 or 16 or so years signals that him himself or she herself will be a participant in that local church on the basis of their profession of faith. The similarity is striking, really, and is the reason why paedobaptist and credobaptist churches do not differ in practical ways as a result of their position on baptism.

My suggestion to the missionaries is that the tribe is not being credobaptized, but paedobaptized, despite being adults. This seemingly askew category choice is appropriate because the only claim that can be made about them is that they are about to be subject to the authority of the local church (presumably run out of the Chief’s office). The promise of God’s election is being declared over them, into which they will grow as they are raised to live to follow Jesus. Since the tribal council decision was not about personal faith, but about whether to continue using the village spirits or the new God, it only makes sense to understand the council’s decision as one of official structure and committed religion.

In this response, I have shown that three aspects of evangelical Revivalist theology fail to meet the needs of the tribal people in Borneo to whom the missionaries were sent. Rather, by adopting a confessional, paedobaptist, Reformed theology, the missionaries could articulate the gospel clearly to the tribal people, without hesitation as the legitimacy of baptizing them together. We have seen that the anthropological question of individual vs. collective cultures is solved by a theological route (understanding Pauline justification and election), and the theological question of paedobaptism vs. credobaptism is solved by an anthropological route (understanding how church ceremonies actually function), betraying the assumed distinctions between the fields.

 

Four highlights from “Getting Simple Right” by Milton Friesen (Comment Magazine)

Loved reading this essay in Comment magazine. You should read it too. It will take about 30 minutes. Link.

On minimalism:

There are many ways for simplicity to become a harmful form of minimalism. Minimalism, characterized as the efficiency- and control-driven expression of modernity, means getting rid of overlap, redundancy, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complications. The impulse is to pare things away until all superfluous elements have been removed. But if you don’t know what is vital and you reduce the living complexity of something, it becomes more fragile. A fragile entity is vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. It turns out to be very difficult to simplify a living thing without doing great harm to what makes it alive. There are strong parallels with human organizations.

On bureaucracy as a mindset:

Size is commonly invoked to explain bureaucracy—that you need to be big to be bureaucratic. Think of a government, or a major corporation. But these dynamics are not about size, per se. If it were, only the big players would face the risk fragility through the wrong kind of simplification. The challenge is that you don’t need to be big to be fragile. A group of any size can—and often does—fall prey to this same way of thinking. More than a hundred years ago Max Weber, in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, argued that while we may claim that our particular organization, as a social structure, is unique or different because it is a charity or a school, such organizations are actually not that different. He claims that whether we have in mind a church, military unit, or business organization, it is the spirit of the impersonal and the efficient, the bureaucratic, that may pervade them all. Their functional ideal, said Weber, is that they operate “without hatred or passion and hence without affection or enthusiasm.” Bureaucracy is an attitude, a spirit, a sensibility. It was this spirit that Hannah Arendt flagged in her controversial evaluation of Eichmann as a banal civil servant enacting horrors from a bureaucrat’s desk.

On mission statements:

Amid the complexity and challenge of organizational leadership, it is easy to make the fatal mistake of thinking noble statements of mission, purpose, or vision are sufficient to protect you from harmful constraints or peer pressure—that the words somehow are what give you focus. The most natural and powerful state for an organization is realized when your actions and your statements are so integrated that even if it isn’t written down, you and those you lead just live it out. This is, of course, both rare and difficult in our all-to-normal times. Far more common are managed simplifications that use formal methods as a means of selling their legitimacy. Such compromises will inevitably lead to organizational erosion over time. Success can cover that up for a good while, but the mask won’t bear weight for long. Simplicity is not saying your mission statement louder or longer or getting it written in granite on your building. Who cares. If you need a bumper sticker to tell people how great you are, you probably aren’t.

On Monasticism and fruitfulness:

Bosch argues that the monks did not set out to change or preserve Western culture and spirituality per se but in pursuing a clear purpose together over time, by taking on a particular organizational form and ethos, they ended up doing just that. This is not the place for a review of the rich, long, and varied life of monasticism as an organizational form, but this form suggests very important insights. Convents and monasteries practiced a form of organizational simplicity rooted in clarity, purpose, stability, wholeness, correction, fitting of roles, natural cycles of time, and many other dynamics that enriched both their common life and the lives of those around them. This kind of simplicity was a buttress against the various cultural temptations that permeated other organizations and structures around them. They failed and faltered as well, but there is a substantive core that persists even today. The dynamic of simplicity with fruitfulness is an elusive dynamic for organizations even today.

The 15 Best Essays

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Photo: the bloggods say that you need at least one photo per post, or people won’t click the shareable link. I assume this is doubly true if the word “essay” is in the title. Here’s some random photo last fall of me, living my best life now, incarnating the TGC aesthetic at a game of laser quest, disheveled, probably pretending not to be out of breath. 

Here are 15 essays that I consider the best.

  1. “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946)
  2. “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace (2005)
  3. “Friendship” by David Whyte (2015)
  4. “The Last Enemy and the Final Victory: Singing the Blues with Jesus” by Michael Horton (2005)
  5. “How to Be an Artist” by Jerry Saltz (2018)
  6. “The Will to Believe” by William James (1896)
  7. “How an Algorithm Feels from the Inside” by Eliezer Yudkowsky (2008)
  8. “Anger” by David Whyte (2015)
  9. “Discipleship Isn’t as Exciting as Youth Ministry Makes it Seem” by Timothy O’Malley (2018)
  10. “Amateur Sociology Considered Harmful” by Ozymandias (2016)
  11. “The Christ-like Gaze in Film” by Brett McCracken (2018)
  12. “The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories” by Scott Alexander (2014)
  13. “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford (2006)
  14. “The Ethics of Elfland” by G.K. Chesterton (1908)
  15. “Can We Compare?” in One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions by C.K. Rowe (2016)

 

UPDATE: I added links. Most are direct to the essays. 3, 8, and 15 are links to the books’ Amazon pages.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • “Advice” by Neil Gaiman (2013). Not an essay but… it could be transcribed into one.
  • “Crony Beliefs” by Kevin Simler (2016). I fell in love with an earlier version of this post. He has since revised it into something more specific. If I could get the text of the original, that would go on my list.
  • “How Do You Make Life-Changing Decisions?” by Ryan Holiday (2012). Was very helpful for me in high school, but now I recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book Just Do Something to everyone.