The Bible in a Year Challenge – week 7 (Feb 7-13)

800px-transfigurazione_28raffaello29_september_2015-1aThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is the day that liturgical churches celebrate Transfiguration Sunday (known in some circles by the catchy name “Quinquagesima Sunday”).  On this day, we recall when Jesus’ full glory was revealed to Peter, James, and John (pictured here in a painting by Raphael).   The texts we read this week are from the Levitical sacrifices and from the chapters leading up to the crucifixion.  As we enter into the season of Lent, let us remember that Christ’s full glory was made perfect in his sacrifice for us.

Notes for the Week

This week’s readings are laden with controversial topics: end times, Old Testament purity laws, the judgment of God, proper worship practices, etc. When dealing with difficult passages, keep some basic principles in mind:

The whole Bible is God’s revelation: The pieces fit together and complement one another – sometimes by contrast, sometimes by development. One of the advantages to a Bible in a year program is that you begin to read the work as a whole and see how. You don’t have to have answers immediately on any given passage – be patient and keep meditating on the scriptures.

Christ is the interpretive key to all the scriptures: Jesus teaches that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). As you read the Old Testament scriptures, as yourself “how does this passage point me to Christ?”   For instance, as you consider all the sacrifices and burnt offerings of Leviticus, meditate on how every sacrifice points to the work of Christ on the cross.

Christ makes the main things plain: Remember that Jesus teaches the two great commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He then punctuates that statement with “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40). This helps ground us through disagreements. Christians disagree a lot about how the end times will play out. There are many different ways to interpret passages like Matthew 24. However, Jesus clarifies what is important through the parables of Matthew 25 (especially the parable of the sheep and goats): kindness to the needy, service to the frail, loving those in need.

Daily Readings

Sunday February 7

Old Testament: Leviticus 1-3

New Testament: Matthew 24:1-28 

Monday February 8

Old Testament: Leviticus 4-5

New Testament: Matthew 24:29-51

Tuesday February 9

Old Testament: Leviticus 6-7

New Testament: Matthew 25:1-30

Wednesday February 10

Old Testament: Leviticus 8-10

New Testament: Matthew 25:31-46

Thursday February 11

Old Testament: Leviticus 11-12

New Testament: Matthew 26:1-25

Friday February 12

Old Testament: Leviticus 13

New Testament: Matthew 26:26-50

Saturday February 13

Old Testament: Leviticus 14

New Testament: Matthew 26:51-75

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I Should Have Loved This Book, But I Didn’t: A Review of “Ready Player One”

Ready player OneFull disclosure:  I am a Gen Xer.  An 80s geek-child.

I spent my teen years as a Trek loving, comics collecting, D&D playing, all-things-Spielberg fanboy.  I geeked out on EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth (the original ride, with the Walter Cronkite voiceover).  I saw the original Dune in theaters and liked it.  When other kids went out on Friday nights, I stayed home and watched Doctor Who on PBS.  I had a Starfleet Technical Manual, the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (where Peter Parker gets married to Mary Jane), a TRS 80 computer with a tape drive, the Atari ET game cartridge (among many others), and Rush’s 2112 on audio cassette.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 smash hit novel Ready Player One should be a book just for me.  Set in a world obsessed with 80s geek culture, this little quest narrative centers on a hero conversant with all things 80s.  It’s a sci-fi nostalgia set-piece drama with plot dynamics straight from that decade.

I should have loved this book.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had fun with it.  Cline certainly knows his 80s trivia, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him show off.  He kept me turning pages at a fast clip.  He clearly worked hard on the book and I found it tremendously entertaining.

So what’s my complaint?  No complaint.  Cline did his job, he deserves every shekel that he earns.  I’m glad for him and his success.

I just can’t join my voice to the thunderous chorus of fanboy and fangirl adulation.  I can’t hail this as a great book, a wise book, or a book of which I would say ‘you gotta read this.’    It’s a confection.  A guilty pleasure.  A fling.

Here’s some of the things that I think kept this fun book from being a great book.

(WARNING – there be spoilers ahead.  Proceed at your own risk)

1) The protagonist doesn’t grow.

To succeed in his quest, the main character, Wade Watts, must call upon his considerable prowess – in this case a remarkable command of trivia, video game skill, and the ability to hack into computer systems.   The challenges he faces come fast, increasing in intensity and difficulty.

But Wade never fails.

He does go off in a wrong direction;

he gets distracted from his mission;

he faces unexpected challenges of colossal magnitude;

but never once does he try something and fail.

Without failure, there is little room for growth.  Failure leads to self-examination, to exploring new horizons, to reassessing motivation.  Failure is the refining fire that helps us use our skill with wisdom.  Wade never goes through any of that.  By the end of the book, I have no sense that he is any wiser than when he began.    I base this conclusion in large part from my next quibble …

2) The “lesson learned” contradicts the plot of the book.

When Wade “wins” the quest, he has the chance to meet a computer simulation of his deceased hero, James Halliday.  Halliday had created the elaborate virtual reality world, called OASIS.  When Halliday learned he was dying he developed a special quest in OASIS – the winner would inherit Halliday’s vast fortune and be given control of the virtual reality empire.  To win the quest, the main characters had devoted their entire lives to mastering trivia about Halliday’s life, learning his favorite movies by heart, learning to play his favorite video games at mastery level.  In order to succeed at the tasks in the quest, they had to completely check out from the “real world” and master the fantasy world of James Halliday.

When Wade meets the computer avatar of Halliday, he receives this puzzling instruction:

“I need to tell you one last thing before I go.  Something I didn’t figure out for myself until it was already too late…. I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world.  I didn’t know how to connect with the people there.  I was afraid, for all of my life.  Right up until I knew it was ending.  That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness.  Because reality is real….  Don’t make the same mistake I did.  Don’t hide in here forever.”

In other words … you dedicated your life to this false world so that you could win my quest, now forget about that.  Because what’s really important is real life.

Doesn’t that seem to be a massive contradiction?  Doesn’t the lesson kind of undermine the quest?  Shouldn’t the challenges of the quest itself have been building to that great lesson?

3) Victorious geeks can become omnipotent bullies:

By the end of the book, Wade has achieved the true geek dream – defeat the bad guys, win the girl, show off your prowess, and attain omnipotence.  In winning the quest, Wade gets absolute control over OASIS.  He becomes, in effect, a god.

I have little confidence in his abilities to use this power well (see point 1).

Sure, his girlfriend has convinced him to use his vast wealth to feed the world.  That’s great.  Helping people in abstract is great.

But dealing with actual people is really difficult.

And Wade has a definite character flaw – one that is endemic in geekdom:  disdain.  Wade shows the geek’s disdain for anyone who doesn’t share in his geekery.  This comes out in his occasional breaks from the narrative to rant about sociopolitical opinions.  It comes out in the attitude toward the antagonists.  It comes out in random interactions.

For instance, Wade goes undercover, taking a job as a customer service representative for the machiavellian corporation that seeks to win the quest and control virtual reality.  His very first customer encounter is a call from a crude individual who was less than technically competent.  Without hesitation, Wade retorts with “Sir, the only problem is that you’re a complete f****** moron.”  His customer service skills do not improve from there.

It’s an ugly side to geekdom, but it exists.  When you’re a bullied underdog, disdain can be a helpful survival tool.  However, when you suddenly go from bullied underdog to most powerful man in the world, it’s pretty hard to shut the disdain switch off.

And disdain plus power equals tyranny.

Wade thinks he’ll use his fortune and power to make the world a better place.

Just remember, that’s what Anakin Skywalker thought too,

That’s also what Ozymandias from Watchmen planned on,

And Rassilon, the greatest of the Time Lords, became bent on destruction of the space time continuum.

I looked up some Amazon reviews, to see if I was alone in my thoughts on this.  I found this helpful little quote from a user called Narutakikun:

“There’s also a weird tone of arrogant mean-spiritedness to this book. It’s a little hard to describe, but it reeks of that attitude you get at a comics shop if you say that you really don’t know that much about Green Lantern or that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was actually a pretty okay movie. The author’s taking occasional breaks to beat you over the head with his sociopolitical views doesn’t help, either. The whole “geekier than thou” thing just doesn’t work for me. It definitely keeps the book from being as “fun” as a lot of people have claimed.”

Without the growth, without the lessons learned, the hero is set up to quickly morph into a villain.  Given what we read in the book, I fear that Wade is likely to become Syndrome (from the Incredibles) or Titan (from Megamind) – or even worse, the Lord Ruler (from the Mistborn Trilogy).

In sum, the 80s were a wonderful decade.  But remember, they spawned the 90s, a decade of irony that undercut the earnestness of the 80s.  There once was a famed 90s song that made reference to:

a bad play where the heroes are right
And nobody thinks or expects too much
And Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights
Singing hey babe let’s keep in touch
Hey baby let’s keep in touch

I can’t help but remember that lyric when I consider the Ready Player One movie coming out in 2017.  Don’t think or expect too much.  Just enjoy it for what it is.  A fling.

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2016 Bible in a Year Challenge – week 6 (Jan 31-Feb 6)

ansgar2On Wednesday, Feb 3, liturgical churches commemorate St. Ansgar, who in the 9th century was sent to evangelize Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  Today, he is known as “The Apostle of the North.”  Here, Ansgar is depicted by the great 19th c painter Gustaf Olaf Cederstrom.

Reading Notes for the Week

The Tabernacle: This week’s passage contains detailed instructions for the creation of the Tabernacle, which was the portable temple that the Israelites carried with them while wandering in the wilderness. As you read, imagine the rich detail, the visual impression that such a structure would have made. Notice that God especially appoints craftsmen and empowers them by the Holy Spirit to make everything that He had commanded. Among other things we learn from these passages, we learn that God cares about beauty, the arts, and excellent craftsmanship.

God With Us: Everything in the tabernacle was designed to communicate that God is with His people. This truth is driven home in Exodus 40 when the glory of the Lord comes in the form of a cloud and settles over the tabernacle. Later Jewish commentators would refer to this special presence of the Lord as the Shekinah, or glorious presence of the Lord. This is the concept that John will appeal to in his gospel when He writes “The Word became flesh and dwelt among men.”

Inclusion of the Gentiles: Much of Jesus teaching in these chapters of Matthew entails a critique of religious hypocrisy and a proclamation that non-Israelites will be allowed to partake in the kingdom. This teaching will come in its fullness when Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the church. Then, truly all believers will enjoy the presence of God’s presence in their hearts. Then, by grace, we will experience the glories that were but hinted at by the tabernacle so long ago.

Readings for the Week

Sunday January 31

Old Testament: Exodus 25-26

New Testament: Matthew 20:17-34

Monday February 1

Old Testament: Exodus 27-28

New Testament: Matthew 21:1-22

Tuesday February 2

Old Testament: Exodus 29-30

New Testament: Matthew 21:23-46

Wednesday February 3

Old Testament: Exodus31-33

New Testament: Matthew 22:1-22

Thursday February 4

Old Testament: Exodus 34-35

New Testament: Matthew 22:23-46

Friday February 5

Old Testament: Exodus 36-38

New Testament: Matthew 23:1-22

Saturday February 6

Old Testament: Exodus 39-40

New Testament: Matthew 23:23-39

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Monthly Mini Reviews for January 2016

As we work our way through the 2016 52 book challenge, I’m going to try (once again) to offer monthly mini-reviews of the books I complete.  Last year, I fizzled out on this part of the project in February – we’ll see how well I do this year.

But first some observations about this year’s project:

About 10 of my friends are doing this challenge in one form or another.  I find that I get really excited to see their posts – I’ve discovered new books (some of which may make it on to my list).  Their progress helps keep me going.

I’m also really intrigued by the commentary that each book generates.  Some spark robust commentary, while others fall flatter than a dead flounder.  This is where the “social” in social media comes in.

Finally, I’m trying to “stage” photos of the books – picking a background and setting that evokes something about the book in some way.  I can’t do it for all the books, but I’m trying for most of them.  This hasn’t generated any commentary yet.  But hope springs eternal.

Now, on to the reviews:

Live, Love, Lead
by Brian Houston.

2016-01-05_1451971248I picked up this book at the library.  Many in my circles consider Houston a heretic, and I wanted to evaluate for myself.  I didn’t find anything glaringly heretical; indeed I could see how this book would be encouraging and inspiring.  However, I found it riddled with cliches (every other page mentions a “big, wide open life” that God has for you) and suffering from the same “bigger is better” bias of most megachurch pastor motivational books.

by Marilynne Robinson.

2016-01-06_1452044796This work of literary fiction (by that, I mean it is not an exciting, plot driven genre piece – it focuses on language, character, mood) has been sitting on my shelf for about a decade (every personal library should have some “aspirational reads”).  Wow.  Just wow.  What more can I say?  How about, “terrific verbal craftsmanship” or “philosophically weighty without being obtuse” or “a melancholy tale that made me think.”

Fool’s Talk
by Os Guinness.

2016-01-21_1453353186The latest work of Christian Apologetics from the winsome, thoughtful, and always intellectually vibrant scion of the famed Irish brewmaster.  I saw this at the library and couldn’t resist the cover.  This is a strong contender for my “Pastor’s Summer Reading Recommendations” for our congregation – wise, balanced, and very helpful in approaching apologetics as a lived practice.  My only quibble is that Guinness tends to repeat his points over and over again in different chapters.  Perhaps it is a pedagogical choice, perhaps it was the fault of an editor who didn’t have the courage to correct Guinness – either way, it is but a mild irritant in what is an overall worthy read.

Pilgrim’s Regress
by C.S. Lewis.

2016-01-23_1453556491You’ve got to hand it to Lewis for sheer audacity.  His first published book of prose is an allegorical conversion narrative, taking the main character on a quest through the intellectual landscape of the mid-twentieth century.  I read this about 20 years ago in my “enchanted by everything Lewis wrote” phase, and I decided to return to it this year.  I enjoyed returning to it, though I suspect it’s not really interesting to anyone who isn’t either a Lewis aficionado or a student of the history of philosophy.

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr.

2016-01-28_1454018018This book was a huge hit last year.  My mother gave it to me for Christmas.  I found it to be an engaging read: fine prose style, interesting characters that I cared about, a narrative structure that kept me on my toes.  Doerr conveys a romantic enchantment with the world and the tragedy that comes when our sins and circumstances crush that enchantment.  He holds out hope that such enchantment can be recovered after a fashion. Sadly, I thought the denouement (covering the last 40 pages or so) was a melancholy petering out of the tale that is almost cliche for our materialist era. It didn’t seem to fit the rest of this otherwise excellent book.

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2016 Bible in a Year Challenge – week 5

john_chrysostom_and_aelia_eudoxiaOn Jan 27, Liturgical churches remember the great saint John Chrysostom, a great fourth century preacher, leader, and defender of the Christian faith.  Chrysostom’s sermons from his service in Antioch are still fresh and relevant for today, but he is most famed for his tenure as archbishop of Constantinople.  During that office, Chrysostom preached against the luxuries and extravagance of the wealthy.  The emperor’s wife thought he was preaching against her, so she arranged to have him deposed and exiled.  After a few years of political wrangling back and forth, Chrysostom died in exile.  Today he is remembered as a great orator and contender for the faith.  As we read this week’s scripture passages, let us remember the saints of the past who held God’s word dear.

Notes for the Week

Christ the Fulfillment of the Law: Exodus 20:1-17 lists the 10 commandments. We can look on these commandments as a summary on the rest of God’s law, or perhaps we can consider the rest of the law as commentary on the 10 commandments. Either way, Jesus reaffirms the 10 commandments as a guide and rule for life when he speaks to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. However, the subsequent conversation with the disciples shows that mere observance of the law is not sufficient for salvation (for who can observe the law in its entirety). Jesus points us to faith – faith in God’s loving kindness.

Christ the Provider: After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. They began to grumble that they were going to starve, yet despite their complaints, God shows his loving kindness in providing sustenance for them in the form of manna and quail (Exodus 16).   Similarly, Jesus feeds the four thousand in the desert. This time, however, the scene is marked by Jesus giving thanks for God’s provision (Matthew 15:36). Christ instructs us to receive the Lord’s provision with gratitude. Let us be especially aware of God’s gracious and kind providence in our lives this week, and let us live with gratitude.

Christ in the Passover: God shows the extent of his loving kindness in the Passover. Though He took the life of the firstborn son of every family in Egypt, He spared Israel this fate by the blood of a Passover lamb. In the Matthew passages, we see Jesus repeatedly predicting his own death. The dramatic imagery of the Passover points directly to the work of Christ on the cross. God’s Son (Matthew 17:5) is also the sacrificial lamb (Matthew 17:22). This week, let us remember that Christ’s death is God’s costly loving kindness in atoning for our inability to completely fulfill the demands of the law.

Readings for the Week:

Sunday January 24

Old Testament: Exodus 9-11

New Testament: Matthew 15:21-39

Monday January 25

Old Testament: Exodus 12-13

New Testament: Matthew 16

Tuesday January 26

Old Testament: Exodus 14-15

New Testament: Matthew 17

Wednesday January 27

Old Testament: Exodus16-18

New Testament: Matthew 18:1-20

Thursday January 28

Old Testament: Exodus 19-20

New Testament: Matthew 18:21-35

Friday January 29

Old Testament: Exodus 21-22

New Testament: Matthew 19

Saturday January 30

Old Testament: Exodus 23-24

New Testament: Matthew 20:1-16

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2016 Bible in a Year Challenge – week 4

christ_handing_the_keys_to_st-_peter_by_pietro_peruginoOn January 18, liturgical churches commemorate the confession of Peter’s faith in Christ as the Messiah (see Matthew 16:13-20).  Protestant churches look to the confession itself as a key element of Christian unity.  The witness of the apostles is a foundation upon which the whole church is built, as it says in Ephesians 2: 19-22:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

As we read through the Bible this week, let us consider how all Christians are united in the simple confession that Jesus is the Christ.

Notes for the Week

Growth of the Kingdom: In this week’s Old Testament readings, we see that the small family of Abraham has grown into a large family that includes 12 sons (who give names to the 12 tribes of Israel). Then in Exodus, the family grows into a nation. God was faithful to his promise to Abraham to raise a nation out of him. In like manner, Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom of God, and these parables all point to astounding growth and multiplication of the Kingdom. As you read these passages, consider 2000 years of church history – how the faith grew from a persecuted sect in Rome to become the world’s largest religion today. 

Opposition to the Kingdom: We also see significant and powerful opposition to the Kingdom in these passages – both in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s active persecution of the Israelites and also in the self-indulgent narcissism of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist. Jesus teaches in the parable of the weeds about an enemy (Matthew 13:24-43). This is Satan, the spiritual force behind all earthly opposition to the kingdom. We should not be surprised at opposition to the Kingdom even in our day.

Victory of the Kingdom: Though there is opposition to the Kingdom, Scripture teaches that God is victorious over all opposition. We see this truth evident in Joseph’s analysis of his brother’s betrayal: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good….” Similarly, in the parable of the weeds, the landowner turns the tables on his enemy’s plot. What men and Satan scheme for evil, God redeems for good.

Readings for the Week:

Sunday January 17

Old Testament: Genesis 41-42

New Testament: Matthew 12:1-23

Monday January 18

Old Testament: Genesis 43-45

New Testament: Matthew 12:24-50

Tuesday January 19

Old Testament: Genesis 46-48

New Testament: Matthew 13:1-30

Wednesday January 20

Old Testament: Genesis 49-50

New Testament: Matthew 13:31-58

Thursday January 21

Old Testament: Exodus 1-3

New Testament: Matthew 14:1-21

Friday January 22

Old Testament: Exodus 4-6

New Testament: Matthew 14:22-30

Saturday January 23

Old Testament: Exodus 7-8

New Testament: Matthew 15:1-20

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2016 Bible in a Year Challenge – week 3

the-baptism-of-christ.jpg!BlogThis Sunday, liturgical churches across the world commemorate the Baptism of Christ.  This is a time to recognize Christ’s humility and submission to the Father.  The One who had no need to repent submitted to a penitent’s ritual;  the One who was perfectly clean humbled himself to receive a sinner’s bath.  As we go through this week’s reading, let us consider how the scriptures point us to the Glorious One who humbled Himself.

Notes for the Week

Calling: In the Old Testament readings, we see God calling the patriarchs to follow Him (Genesis 26:23-25, Genesis 28:10-17, Genesis 35:1 and 11-13). Similarly, in the New Testament readings, we see Jesus calling followers, both through face to face interactions (Matthew 9:9-13) and through sending his disciples out on preaching missions (Matthew 10). The calling, however, is the same – come, be in relationship with God and follow Him. Calling isn’t just for religious professionals; every Christian is called to know God and follow Him.

Honest Portrait of the Saints: As you read through Genesis, you’ll see that the saints of the past were colorful characters, to say the least. Deception, betrayal, polygamy, pride, jealousy, family discord – the Bible portrays all of this with arresting honesty. When we read these stories, we are confronted with the fact that the heroes of our faith, though called by God, were all flawed and sinful characters. This truth, however, does not negate our faith. Rather it shows God’s goodness, mercy, and loving-kindness all the more. If God extended grace to this motley bunch of characters, then we can have confidence in the grace that He extends to us as well.

Struggle: Note how the saints all struggle with immense burdens: Jacob is terrified of Esau’s rage; Dinah is abused by a neighbor; Tamar is neglected by her in-laws; Joseph is sold into slavery and then thrown into prison. Jesus prepares his disciples for their preaching mission with a warning that they are as “sheep amongst wolves.” The Bible doesn’t promise freedom from struggle, rather, it promises that God does not abandon us in our struggles.

Readings for this Week:

Sunday January 10

Old Testament: Genesis 25 & 26

New Testament: Matthew 8:1-17

Monday January 11

Old Testament: Genesis 27 & 28

New Testament: Matthew 8:18-34

Tuesday January 12

Old Testament: Genesis 29 & 30

New Testament: Matthew 9:1-17

Wednesday January 13

Old Testament: Genesis 31 & 32

New Testament: Matthew 9:18-38

Thursday January 14

Old Testament: Genesis 33 -35

New Testament: Matthew 10:1-20

Friday January 15

Old Testament: Genesis 36-38

New Testament: Matthew 10:21-42

Saturday January 16

Old Testament: Genesis 39-40

New Testament: Matthew 11

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