Category Archives: Culture

Do Nativity Scenes Help Us Worship God?

On December 24, 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi made the very first living animal nativity scene in an Italian grotto. I imagine that Saint Francis made a live nativity because he loved animals so much (note the picture).This tradition carries on today; however, do living nativity scenes actually help us worship God come in the flesh? My wife and I visited her family last weekend and we went to the local church’s live nativity scene. I had never seen an actual nativity scene acted out like this, where there were literal animals. It was pretty intense, this Church went all out. Living animals, a choir, young girls as angels, men as wise men, little boys as shepherds, a young man and woman as Mary and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus being acted out by an anonymous newborn child.

My question still remains, do nativity scenes like this actually help us worship God come in the flesh? Saint Francis of Assisi would have said yes. As I reflect upon the nativity scene my wife and I witnessed, it is very hard to say. I was partially distracted by the 4 year old girl who kept waving at everyone and the wise men who had denim pants and sneakers underneath their robes, and the fact that there were horses eating hay…I always pictured more sheep, cattle, and camels in the real version.

The narrator read parts of Matthew and Luke, and the choir responded with songs of worship, including most Christmastime favorites (all of which were centered on Christ, nothing like Rudolph).There were several attending the nativity scene who were not a part of the Church, and the pastor invited them to join for their Sunday gatherings. After the nativity, people gathered together in the church building for more hot chocolate and cookies. This Church obviously saw this as a huge ministry and outreach, taking it very seriously.

At the end of the day, I have to say that attending the living nativity scene did bless my soul. My wife and I were able to wear our pea coats and scarfs, drinking hot chocolate underneath a portable heat stove, while singing worship songs and laughing with the little kids’ short attention spans and being able to spend time with old friends whom we had not seen for over 6 months. Praise God that He came in the flesh so we could worship Him, recalling His birth on that evening.

When is the last time you went to a living nativity scene? did it help you worship God Emmanuel?


My 5 Favorite Books of 2011

I usually enjoy putting together my list of 5 favorite books from the past year. I’m not sure that anyone really cares that much about my favorite books. But it’s always fun to reflect on what I’ve read over the last twelve months and remember all the great books I’ve read.

Alas, this is not one of those years. Looking back, I’m somewhat distressed but two things: (1) I really didn’t read that many books, and (2) most of them weren’t all that great. They weren’t bad; they just weren’t great.

I need to do something about that next year. At the very least, I need to carve out a little more reading space – especially for good fiction. But I also need to read better books. I think I’ve been trying a little too hard to “keep up” with the popular books, leaving too little time to engage the really good ones.

Nonetheless, the year wasn’t a complete loss. I did read some good books worth mentioning. So, without further ado, here are my 5 favorite books of 2011. (By the way, these are books that I read in 2011 regardless of when they were published.)


Best Theology Book

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, Fred Sanders. If you like reading theologians who write well, think creatively, engage important issues, and connect them to everyday life, this book is for you. Sanders does an outstanding job working through a range of issues relative to understanding the Trinity, and showing how each matters for life and ministry today. Far from being a piece of theological speculation, of interest only to theologians and church historians, Sanders unfolds the Trinity as central to Christian spirituality and the gospel itself.


Best Fiction Book

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Okay, I’m cheating a bit here by putting two books together. But they really tell one story, and I read them at the same time. So I think it’s justified. Anyway, these two fantasy novels are a fabulous read. Grossman shamelessly steals themes and ideas from all over the fantasy genre, combining them to tell a unique and compelling story. What I found most interesting here is that unlike most fantasy novels, I didn’t find the world that Grossman created to be all that interesting. But his characters are oddly fascinating. And he’s not at all afraid to run them through the ringer. (Warning: the story does get rather gritty in places. It’s not as bad as A Song of Fire and Ice, but it’s still tough at times.)


Best Book about the Gospel

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, Scot McKnight. I decided to go with just one of the many books written about the gospel this year. And, of those, I liked McKnight’s the best. McKnight does a great job explaining how the good news of “my” salvation only makes sense when it gets placed in the larger story of what God has been doing in and through his people from the very beginning. Since that’s much of what I’m trying to do with my own gospel book (though in a rather quirkier manner), I’m probably a bit biased. But I think it’s so important to see the broader story as the necessary frame for the narrower story of personal salvation. And McKnight’s is one of the best books out there right now for doing that.


Best Book That Is Impossible to Categorize 

Night of the Living Dead Christian: One Man’s Ferociously Funny Quest to Discover What It Means to Be Truly Transformed, Matt Mikalatos. Speaking of quirky, you have to love a book that uses werewolves, zombies, and vampires to tell the story of Christian transformation. Matt has a creative (someone would say bizarre) sense of humor and the amazing ability to take pop culture and use it to illuminate important theological ideas. If you’re looking for something a little different to read, or if you’d like to recommend a book to someone who doesn’t usually read theology books, this is a great choice


Best Church History Book: 

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath. This book served as the starting point for the heresy series I wrote in the fall. McGrath does a great job laying out all the key issues involved in understanding what heresy is and why it matters today. And he manages to avoid being overly technical at the same time, keeping the book readable and fairly short.

Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

We’re so much more enlightened now. As modern science developed, we came to realize that these “monsters” were really just humans with physical peculiarities. There was no reason to believe that they constituted some qualitatively distinct kind of being.

So we dropped “monster” and came up with other ways of excluding people. The literature and rhetoric of “race” of the years has been filled with language implying or simply stating that other races are “subhuman” in some way. Sure they’re human, but they’re not “fully” human. Today you’ll hear similar language used to describe the severely handicapped, the unborn, and even the elderly. And for many, “alien” serves much the same function. Sure they’d never come right out and say that the illegal alien on the corner is subhuman, but they’ll certainly think and act in such a way that suggests this is what they believe deep down.

Monsters. Aliens. Subhumans. Others.

That’s the kind of thinking Augustine addresses in City of God when he talks about whether those who don’t look like us should be regarded as monsters or as humans:

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth:  others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks “Pigmies.”…But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races.  For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs….But who could enumerate all the human births that have differed widely from their ascertained parents?  As, therefore, no one will deny that these are all descended from that one man, so all the races which are reported to have diverged in bodily appearance from the usual course which nature generally or almost universally preserves, if they are embraced in that definition of man as rational and mortal animals, unquestionably trace their pedigree to that one first father of all.  (City of God 4.16.8)

Augustine’s answer may not be the surprising to us today, but it was remarkable for his time. No matter how different in appearance, a being that descends from humans is human. And no matter how great the deformity, in their uniqueness and peculiarity, that person contributes to “the beauty of the whole.”

That’s an important word for us today. We tell ourselves that we don’t believe in monsters, yet we often treat those different from us as though they were precisely that, failing to see in our blindness the many ways that they contribute to the beauty of the whole.

The Top Religion Stories of 2011

I missed this last week, but Huffington Post released their list of the Top Religion Stories of 2011. And I’d have to say that “The End of the World” should certainly be included in any list of major events for the year. But yoga? Really? You’ll have to read the post to get their explanation of each, but here’s the list.
  1. The Muslim Spring
  2. The Dalai Lama Steps Down
  3. Mormons in Politics
  4. The Muslims Are Coming, the Muslims Are Coming
  5. The End of the World
  6. Presbyterians Acknowledge Gays and Lesbians Can Be Ministers
  7. The Struggle for the Soul of Yoga
  8. A Jewish American-Israeli Rift?
  9. Occupy Faith
  10. The New Mass
  11. Interfaith Secularists

A Theology of California Surf Culture (ETS Papers)

If you’re like me, you may wonder if anything good can possibly come out of the California surf culture. All I can think of is Beach Boys music and bad 50s movies, phrases like “Surf’s up dude!” and “I’m totally stoked!,” and, of course, Point Break (and we all know the depth of anything associated with Keanu Reeves).

by Michael Dawes (Flickr)

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. A theology of surf culture? What might that look like? How do you do a theological analysis of a subculture like this, and what insights might you gain? So I attended a paper by Robert Covolo (Fuller Seminary) setting out to do precisely this. (This was the first paper in a section sponsored by the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture project.) The paper unfolded in four main parts:

Surfing’s Inevitable Theologies

Covolo began the paper by looking at surfing in Hawaii at the time of the first Protestant missionaries. He pointed out that surfing was an an embedded cultural practice with ties to sports, gambling, religion, politics, and more. Indeed, surfing was so integral to that “pagan” cultural context, that the Protestant missionaries saw the gradual decline of surfing as the necessary result of the Gospel redeeming that society.

And, in a second example, he pointed to many authors who have argued that surf culture is antithetical to Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic. He disagreed with the argument, but offered it as an example of how people have recognized that surf culture has theological significance.

So Covolo used these examples as a way of pointing out the fact that a cultural practice like surfing is necessarily laden with religious/theological ideas. He didn’t go so far as to call it its own religion, but he does see it as religiously significant. And this opens the door to theological engagement.

A Brief History of California Surf Culture

The most interesting part of this section was the distinction he drew between the popularized and commercialized surf culture found in the Beach Boys and Hollywood movies, and the “real” surf culture that tended to be less commercialized and more countercultural. The latter were frustrated with the former for co-opting their culture and turning it into something more palatable to the dominant culture.

And he also mentioned the importance of the Jesus Movement for understanding surf culture. Although many have focused on eastern religious themes in surf culture, Covolo argued that very little attention has been paid to the thousands of California surfers who became Christians at this time, and saw significant parallels between Christian theology and the countercultural surf culture.

Motifs in Surf Culture

Covolo’s approach to analyzing culture revolves around the idea of identifying theologically significant motifs in the target culture and engaging them in dialogue with Christian theology. At the end of the paper, though, he points out that this can be done in two ways. The Protestant missionaries in Hawaii used an outside-in approach, recognizing that surfing was religiously significant, and then engaging that culture from their own theological convictions. And he’s fine with doing that. But he thinks that a second move is critical: understanding the culture from the inside. For cultural analysis to work, you have to get to know the “inner logic” of the culture, and then draw it into theological dialog.

The motifs that Covolo used for the paper were that of “leisure” and “time.” Covolo drew a distinction between “island time” and “western time.” Island time views time as an end in itself. The goal is to live “in the moment” and appreciate the “now.” The dominant Western culture has an instrumental view of time that see it as a commodity to be used for some other purpose. You don’t simply enjoy time, you harness it for greater productivity. The dominant culture, then, can only have an ambiguous view of leisure. While appreciating “free” time, it must also see leisure as a “waste” of a valuable resource. Surf culture, on the other hand, views leisure as a good in itself, enjoying the moment as it is given.

Surf culture, then, stands as a challenge and a critique to modern views of leisure and time. And Covolo finds much to appreciate. Drawing on the theology of Augustine, Covolo pointed out resonances in the idea that time is both intrinsic to the created order and that we now live in “fallen time,” unable to experience time as we should. Surf culture, then, performs both a prophetic and an eschatological role. Prophetically, it challenges the dominant culture’s facile adoption of fallen time. Eschatologically, it points out that things are not as they should be. Although it lacks the narrative directionality of Christian theology, it still points forward to a time when things could be different.

The Poetics of Surf

Here Covolo looked at the language of surf culture and showed how often it connects to religious themes/ideas. The “stoke” that surfers talk about refers to the peak experience that comes from moving harmoniously with something as powerful as the ocean itself. This is an almost mystical experience that transcends language, resonating with apophatic traditions in many religions. And the way surfers talk about the ocean and the power of the wave harkens to biblical language about an all-powerful God who thunders and roars. Throughout, surf language reflects religious ideas and experiences that are ripe for theological analysis.


This ended up being a very interesting paper with good food for thought on how to engage cultures (and subcultures) in theological dialog. Nonetheless, I’m still stuck with a few nagging thoughts that I would have liked to hear more about. Most importantly, I wonder about how we can know when something that sounds “religious” actually is religious? For example, just because I refer to my dinner as “sublime,” should we presume that I have a theological approach to food? If we’re not careful, we run the risk of over-reading a culture by assuming that religious sounding language/motifs can have only one semantic function.

I would have also liked to see an example of critical analysis as well. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the “inner logic” of a culture and working toward understanding before engaging in meaningful critique. But the danger is that we work so hard at understanding that we never get to the critique. Is “island time” and the corresponding appreciation of leisure an unadulterated good? That seems an unlikely conclusion. So what does a legitimate critique of a culture’s inner logic look like?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll stop. It was a good paper that raised some great questions. But I’m still not going to take up surfing.

A powerful video on sex trafficking

Here’s a powerful video from Unearthed on sex trafficking and exploitation. It tells the story of a man who used to work for a sex trafficking syndicate in South Africa, and the transformation that took place when he responded to the Gospel. Check it out.

The meaning of life according to Siri.

Whoever programed Siri, the new iPhone personal assistant, has a fabulous sense of humor and the amazing ability to predict what kinds of weird questions people might think to ask their new iPhone. Check out some of the creative responses Siri gave to a whole range of off-the-wall questions.

My personal favorite is this slightly disturbing exchange:

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the phone in my pocket having quite that much experience with this kind of thing.

But, even more interesting was this series of exchanges on the meaning of life. I think Siri is someone I could sit down and have a meaningful conversation with.






Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

I like my Mac; there, I said it out loud

upgrading on a budget

I actually made the decision fairly quickly, but it’s taken me a while to say it out loud. It’s hard to admit. Granted, it’s not like I’m having to say that like cats. That would be too much. But, still.

A while back I confessed that I had purchased a Macbook Air 11 and that I had two weeks to decide if I was going to keep it. That was three weeks ago. I still have it. It wasn’t a hard decision.

Actually, the first several days were a bit rough. I haven’t used a Mac regularly since I was an undergrad. What is the stupid “option” key for again? Why are all the “close window” buttons on the left? And, I nearly screamed the fifteenth time I hit what I thought was the windows key to open my start menu, which, of course, doesn’t exist on a Mac.

About two days into my grand experiment I came to the following conclusion: anyone who thinks that Macs are more “intuitive” obviously grew up using Macs.

Nonetheless, I persevered. A few weeks later, I still can’t say I know where everything is. But, at least I’m not frustrating myself at every turn. The learning curve has started to flatten out.

But, why persevere? Why didn’t I just give up and slip back into the familiar PC world?

First, and most importantly, this is the first laptop I’ve found that does exactly what I want the way I want.

Keyboard. I’m very particularly about my keyboards. Earlier in my journey toward the perfect laptop, I returned at least three simply because I didn’t like the keyboard. I like my keyboards responsive, quiet, and solid, with very little travel. And, many smaller laptops fail on one or more of those. But, I could type on this keyboard all day long. Indeed, I’d intended to buy an external keyboard for home use, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s hard to pull the trigger on another purchase when I like this one so much.

Trackpad. The multitouch trackpad is fabulous. I’ve used a few PC laptops that have tried to implement their own version, but they don’t come close.

Size/weight. I knew going on that this laptop was the perfect size for me. But, having taken it on one plane trip confirmed it. The best thing about that trip was watching the guy in the seat next to me trying to use his full-sized laptop. In coach. He had it propped halfway up his chest and was typing with his hands at an angle that would make a physical therapist cringe. Meanwhile, I’m working happily on my little MBA with room to spare on my tray for my coffee and pretzels. It was perfect. And, it’s light enough that I’m thinking about getting a new briefcase. It seems silly to carry such a light laptop in such a heavy bag.

Speed. This is a fast, little laptop. Granted, I don’t do video-editing or other CPU-intensive tasks. So, as long as a laptop can handle having 7 or more applications open at the same time, most of which will have multiple tabs/windows open, without slowing down, I’m happy. And, this laptop handles that setup better than any of the others I’ve tried. And, although waiting a little while for your laptop to start up isn’t that big of a deal, having it start almost instantly is fantastic. Solid state drives rock.

Integration. Since I’ve also decided to keep my iPad (another post on that sometime), having a Mac is perfect. The two play so nicely together. Now I just need to get an iPhone to make my conversion complete. Sadly, that won’t happen for a little while yet.

So, the machine by itself would have been enough to keep me in the Mac world. I know there are some nice PC laptops out there. But, I honestly couldn’t find one in the same price range that I liked anywhere near as much.

On top of that, though, I’m beginning to like the Mac environment itself. (Granted, maybe it’s just my subconscious at work trying to justify keeping the laptop.) I don’t see myself becoming a Mac fanatic, arguing that the Mac environment is inherently better, and wearing Apple gear all the time. I’ve used PCs long enough to know that there are some great programs out there that I’ll probably miss. But, the Mac programs I’ve used so far are pretty sweet. So, it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on all that much.

Again, I’m only a few weeks into this transition, so this may change. But, here’s what I’m using at the moment:

Microsoft Office: I know, it’s probably some kind of sacrilege to use Microsoft products on a Mac. But, I work in a Microsoft world. And, although I used some great non-MS products, it just didn’t make sense to switch back and forth constantly. So, I’ll stick with Word and Excel as primary tools.

Scrivener: When I want to switch into pure writing mode, though, I think I’ll stick with Scrivener. I’m still in the trail period, so I don’t have to decide yet, but so far it’s a keeper.

Accordance: The nice people at Accordance sent me a review copy, so I’ll be posting a thorough review a bit later (along with a review of Bible Works 9). But my initial response is very positive. It’s a great tool that has been very easy to adjust to.

Evernote: I love Evernote. And, the fact that it’s a cross platform product makes it a no-brainer.

Dropbox: Another cross-platform tool that is very helpful. And, since I’m using MS products as my primary software tools, it’s easy to move in and out of my most common files on both my Mac and PC machines. (By the way, if you want to sign up for Dropbox, let me know. I get extra storage space if I refer people, and I’m always in the market for more space!)

Cloud Apps: And, of course, I use a number of cloud-based programs that don’t care what kind of laptop I have (gmail, Google calendar, WordPress, etc.).

So, the software switch hasn’t been anywhere near as difficult as I thought it would be.

All that to say, I’ve been thoroughly corrupted. I still don’t mind working on a PC in a Windows environment, but I’ll definitely be keeping my Mac. If nothing else, I like finally being able to join those Mac users at the coffee shop who get to give each other knowing glances as we look down our noses at everyone else.

Now if only I dressed more hip and drank anything but black coffee.

Your Guide to Living Life in 10 Fictional Worlds

Wired Magazine has a great infographic on Your Guide to Living Life in in 10 Fictional Worlds. On their list, Catan takes the top spot as a resource rich island with “mountain views and sheep-filled meadows.” And, standing closets to the “Hellish Pit of Despair” end of the spectrum is Sodor, the life-sapping world of Thomas the Train.

I’d have to go with Discworld. What could possibly be more fun than living an Ankh-Morpork?

click to embiggen