Monday, March 31, 2014

Looking for Nutrition at the Drive-Thru

All over the Christian world, critics are rising up to discuss Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah. Alan Kurschner says the film is straight-up blasphemy. Ken Ham complains that recommending the movie, at all, conflicts with Christian consistency in arguing against abortion. Barbara Nicolosi says that the film contains “dumb, oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense." The list of complaints goes on.

Just to show that I’m not a huge fanboy (nor a full-on hater) of the film, before proceeding further, I’ll post my response when somebody, elsewhere, wanted to know what I thought of it (especially with reference to Nicolosi’s piece linked to above):
I just saw it a couple hours ago. I loved the first 2/3 of the movie. It was a visual spectacle. We may never see the flood rendered in such artistic beauty and simultaneous horror again. There were scenes reminiscent of Gustav Dore's pictures of judgment. I also didn't mind the rock people. I look at this film as another flood story comparable to the Epoch of Gilgamesh. It isn't accurate, but it is an opportunity to think about God's wrath, about coming judgment, and about the truth that God really did wipe mankind from the face of the earth because of its evil. 
Also, the complaint that Noah is a left-wing "environmentalist" in the film ignores the fact that God placed Adam in the garden not to trash it and make it uninhabitable, but to have respect for it because he respected the creator. As Beale says in his New Testament Biblical Theology, Adam was placed in the garden to be a prophet, priest, and king. Part of his priestly duty was caring for the garden as well as the animals. The original environmentalist (properly defined, of course)! Frankly, the complaint that she makes calling it "oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense" shows that the one writing is more influenced by her own political tradition than what the Bible says about man's relationship to the creation. 
But the last 1/3 of the movie? A true mess. The decision to turn Noah into the film's antagonist was an interesting but horrible decision. Aronofsky must have seen it as an opportunity to explore Noah's motives or something, but it just came off all wrong. 
The story was already dark. Aronofsky made it unnecessarily darker. Although I sort of like the idea of a theatre full of nominally religious people looking for something "positive and encouraging" and instead being given an existential schooling. All in all, it was amazingly made, beautiful to behold, horrific in its depiction of judgment, and not such a great story by the end.
Although I’ve been interested in seeing the movie for years (ever since I heard it was being made) I am not a fanboy. I am critical of the film, but I try to criticize in a balanced way, keeping in mind that it is a movie and taking it for what it is intended to be. The criticisms I am seeing from many conservative bloggers (whom I do love and respect as my brothers and sisters in the Lord) remind me of the person who goes into McDonalds expecting a healthy, delicious, well-balanced meal containing all four food groups and then storming out in anger when they wonder why everything is greasy and there isn’t any tofu on the menu. The desire for good food is good, but they are looking for it in the wrong place!

Anybody who goes to see a movie (any movie)…a religious movie, a secular movie, a good movie, a bad movie… should not expect a heaping helping of truth. As with all art that is produced by sinners it’s going to get some stuff right and some stuff wrong (often intentionally so). Sometimes the art is self-consciously dumb like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Sometimes it takes itself very seriously (think of Michaelangelo’s statue of David or every movie ever made by Christopher Nolan).

Furthermore, to accuse this movie of blasphemy seems a bit confused. Perhaps somebody wants to accuse Darren Aronofsky himself, personally, of blasphemy, but does he actually believe the things being depicted in the film? I doubt it. It's fiction. It doesn't say "based on a true story" in the credits. In fact, the only things that this movie and the Bible share in common are a flood and a few characters' names. I don’t think Aronofsky actually believes there were rock giants who protected Noah while he built the ark. He is a filmmaker, not a documentarian. A visual artist, not a journalist. A storyteller, not an eyewitness. And in the case of Noah, his storytelling isI would concedenot in top form. The director himself claimed that this is the "least Biblical biblical film ever made." Some have taken this as an opportunity to condemn the film, but in fact it shows that there is a self-awareness that this movie isn't trying to present the actual story, but a radical rewriting. In point of fact, this movie has more in common with Lord of the Rings than anything we find in the Bible.

While I’m at it, I want to just mention in passing that comparing a book to a movie is like comparing a painting to a statue. It’s two completely different mediumsboth art. To make a statue of the Mona Lisa might (and that's a huge "might") be interesting, but it would also be something completely different from the originalperhaps barely worthy of comparison.

I’m not interested in defending Noah as great art, or as an accurate religious statement. I don’t have to. It’s just a movie. It is not the preaching of the Word, it is not the Sacraments, and it is not prayer. These are the means that God has given his church for her edification and upbuilding. It is in these areas that Christians should demand theological integrity and where battle-lines should be drawn. If you are taking a youth group to this movie (or any movie) because you want them to be fed spiritually, you're out of your mind. (The same goes for taking them to Newsboys concerts as well, by the way.)

I’ve written previously that Christians expect too much from their music, and the same is true of movies. When you go to the Waffle House, expect waffles. When you go to the steak house, understand that they serve steak there. And when you go to a cinemaplex, whose walls are covered with posters with giant robots, wizards, and men shooting webs out of their hands, understand that this place is meant to do one thing well: entertain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keeping Your Head Above Water in Seminary

I won’t hold myself up as the pinnacle of time-management. I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be. However, I'm quite a few semesters into school and haven't lost my mind yet. I'm getting my assignments in on time and doing well in classes. I often get asked how I have time to read books beyond what we're assigned in class. I may be well-adjusted enough to give a few tips. I've had to become organized out of necessity. I'm the kind of person to get easily stressed out if I have too many things on my plate. I want to do everything well and if I know I have things undone it drives me crazy until they've been handled. My first tip, of course, is don't waste hours and hours of your time watching sports. If that's not enough, you may need to just read on and see the rest of what I say.

My first year of seminary was very stressful. This was for a variety of reasons - the same sorts of problems and concerns that occupy most seminarians that I hang out with, really. I’m not special or unique. But my prone-ness toward stress drove me to find ways to be more efficient with my time. Leon Brown has written a blog post where he highlights the importance of time management in Seminary. In light of the topic he’s brought up I thought that I would share a few of the most important practical changes (most of them tech-related) that I’ve made in my life that have been used by the Lord to maintain my sanity. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it is the big four.

When you click to read your e-mail, what do you see? Are there a couple that are waiting to be cleared out, or are there 3,000 that are there to stay? When I first came to seminary, after reading an e-mail I would just leave it in my inbox unless it was junk or spam. I didn’t sort it, and I relied on my memory when I needed to go back to something in an e-mail at a later date.

What changed my life was using an app that lets you file your e-mails you want to save, delete the ones that don’t matter or have your email sent back later. I use Mailbox for iOS. I won’t go on and on about this, but if you use an e-mail app that still leaves your inbox filled with thousands of e-mails you need another system. This program encourages you to have a zero inbox. Probably the most important thing about this program is that you can set the e-mails that you need to respond to later (but don’t have the time) to return to you at a later time when you can deal with it. It forces you to confront what is in your inbox. This means that any time there is something in your inbox, it is something that needs to be dealt with. It saves you time down the road and—more importantly—saves you from the mental energy of trying to keep track of e-mails you need to deal with in your mind.

The Seminarian’s Calendar
If you have a calendar app on your computer and aren’t using it, I don’t know how you get through the day. When I first started at RTS I didn’t do well with time management. I didn’t think very far ahead. I took the semester one week at a time and didn’t think much further ahead than that. It was a mess and resulted in a couple of final papers that had been cobbled together over the course of a couple weeks instead of being allowed to simmer throughout the semester. By the second semester, though, I’d figured out that I needed to sit down for a few hours with all of the syllabi from every class and write in the due dates for everything. Every reading, every paper, every quiz…everything. I use the default Calendar app on my Mac as well as a program called Fantastical.

One of the best things I’ve done with projects that are due at the end of the semester is to create an event at different stages along the process to confront me with reminders and set milestones. These events essentially ask me how I’m doing on assignment X or Y. You don’t want to turn in a last minute paper. Last minute papers stink. They smell like desperation and commentaries. Working on your paper at stages throughout the semester helps to prevent that.

As an example, I actually have a paper for Isaiah-Malachi that is due on April 11th. I created an event for Feb. 28th in Fantastical that says, “Have a thesis and outline written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” I then created an event on March 21st that said, “Have rough draft written for Isaiah-Malachi paper.” These are stages in the creation of a paper that you don’t want to leave til April 7 to get started on. At this point, all I have to do for that paper is to go over the rough draft and clean it up. I’ve removed the stress from the equation by working on it in chunks through the semester. Use your calendar apps to keep you on your toes!

Also, when each week starts I go through and have every day planned out. I print out my schedule for my wife while walking through it with her. It helps her out and it gives me an opportunity to think about my week before it happens. I tell myself how to spend my day before it starts. If I followed my base impulses I’d just watch cats playing Super Mario Bros. on You Tube until it’s bedtime. Seminarians shouldn’t live like that. Every day that we spend is precious. There shouldn’t be wasted minutes. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be relaxation or times of rest. But it does mean that most of our time is already spoken for.

I don’t know if you should use Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever. I haven’t tested all of them. I use Dropbox and I’m happy with it. Several times a day I use Dropbox for at least something. I use it to e-mail class notes to a classmate who was sick, to check something from the class syllabus (you don’t just carry those around with you, do you?) on your iPad, to print off an assignment that’s due, or to open a PDF to study off of even if you forgot to transfer it before you left home.

Another reason to use Dropbox? Your computer could crash. How many semesters of work will you lose if your computer drops dead? Probably a lot. And that’s a lot of tears. Having a cloud backup is a nice cozy security blanket for your schoolwork. If you have a desktop computer at home that you use and a laptop that you also use, it keeps files between them synched constantly. No need to transfer files from one computer to the other. It’s a time saver. It’s a thought saver. With Dropbox you spend less time worrying about stuff and more time focusing on your projects, lessons, sermons, etc. that are keeping you busy already.

And while you’re at it, keep your Dropbox organized. Create a folder for each semester of the school year and subfolders within each of those for the classes you have that semester. Stay organized so that you have to use your brain less to remember where you kept stuff. Click on the picture above to get an idea of how I keep mine organized.

Half of time management is keeping yourself well organized. Know your week ahead of schedule. Know your semester before it begins. Know your long-term projects and create reminders to work on them throughout the semester. Do not save your papers until the week they’re due.

Be (willing to be) a B Student
I don't remember where I heard this, but somebody once told a group of seminary students, "For some of you, it would be a sin for you to not get an A. For others of you, it would be a sin if you did get an A." The point this person was making was that school is not supposed to be more important than everything else in your life. If somebody is capable of getting an A without upsetting the balance of the universe, they should aim for an A. But if getting an A means throwing your family under the bus or neglecting the church, you need to recalibrate things.

Use the extra time your efficiency is carving out to look at your kids. Talk to them. Hold them up in the air and stare at them. Kiss your wife. Be present. Be alive. Enjoy your family. Take them to church. Pray with them. Read Lord of the Rings with your kids at bedtime. Oftentimes seminary students wait until the semester is over to pay attention to their families. I don’t care if you’re taking 17 credit hours and preaching on the weekends, you probably need to come to terms with the fact that God didn’t call you to Seminary exclusively to be an A student. I’ve never heard of a church that wanted to know a man’s GPA from seminary before hiring him. God definitely called you to keep your family together and to minister to your wife. And while you’re at it, grit your teeth and let your wife go to women’s groups in the evenings when it’s possible. Watch the kids for her. Take a load off of her back. Give her one chance during the week to meet other people who aren’t little kids who want to watch Magic School Bus 24/7!

E-Mail inbox zero. Calendar apps. Dropbox. Be willing to be a B student.

That’s it. Those are the four things that have taken the chaos of my semester and given me some structure and stability. Everyone is different, and everyone’s personality requires different things to function well. For me, I can’t be thinking about a thousand things at a time. I can only be any good at one thing at a time, and that means bringing structure out of the chaos.

Know what your priorities are. Act in ways that move you towards accomplishing your priorities. Don’t play video games until the important stuff is done. Pray like you’re dependent on God (you are). Act like he holds you responsible (He does).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell

There are two kinds of seminarians: those of us who think they don’t need to hear what How to Stay Christian in Seminary has to say, and those who know they do. Many of us are part of that first group. We like the academic stuff, right? Give us a warm old Puritan before a modern Christian living book filled from beginning to end with stories and illustrations any day. We know how to talk about God’s grace. We know that we're sinners and can explain the ins and outs of the noetic effects of sin. Well if we know these things already, why should we read a book with a name like How to Stay Christian in Seminary? Isn't a book like this for somebody who just can't cut it? The answer is that, for the most part, as seminarians our biggest problem is not an issue of knowing.

As much benefit as seminary brings, it can also be dangerous for our souls. It’s true. If you’ve been at any seminary for any amount of time, perhaps you’ve seen temptations in your own lives unique to this particular season. We can be tempted to partition our lives into academic and spiritual compartments. We can also experience the temptation to "stuff your head with more than your heart can digest." We can even lose the vision of why we came here to seminary in the first place; the calling that brought us here to begin with. We may be tempted to neglect our families and simply bury our face in the books. "I'll see them when the semester is over," we may say. Hopefully these do not strike any of us as minor temptations.

The fact is, our professors try very hard to make these classes connect with our hearts and not only with our minds. They meet with us for prayer and to talk about spiritual challenges in our lives. Our participation in local churches encourages us to pursue intimacy with God through His Word and prayer. It also pushes us to be a part of the church and to serve her. Even with all of these positive influences, the temptations are still real, and often we need somebody who has been there before to gently prod, remind, and to warn us.

There are things which ought to penetrate the heart and practice of the average seminarian. This book is intended to help you, to identify potential problem areas, and to enable you to develop strategies and disciplines that can make seminary a time of growth instead of diminution. Yes, it’s a Christian Living book. No, it is not the hardest thing you’ve ever read. No, reading it won't necessarily give you the bragging rights you so deeply yearn for. But please understand—this book is written for you. None of us are too good to read this book.

How to Stay Christian in Seminary is currently on sale for $1.99 on the Kindle.