Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Finally Finished College

I officially received my bachelor's degree in 1995 and have even received a couple of master's degrees since then, but it wasn't until a few days ago that I really finished college. Allow me to explain …

During my junior year, I took a class on C.S. Lewis taught by Lewis scholar Jerry Root. Back then, professor Root lived in Santa Barbara and commuted to Los Angeles every Thursday to teach the class. His was one of the most — if not the most — popular courses to take so, as is common in a big lecture class, you didn't get a lot of one-on-one time with the professor, especially considering he was only on campus once a week. Consequently, in order to calculate final grades for students, he had us turn in a reading report that specified how much of the required reading we had done. He combined this with the grade for our research papers to determine our final grade. Actually, he had us do the calculating on our reading report and so, if we'd done our calculations correctly, we knew the grade we were getting for the course. If we were right, he'd give us what we had calculated and it would show up on our report cards at the end of summer. Those who were too anal/obsessive-compulsive and couldn't wait until the end of summer for their report cards could give him a self-addressed, stamped postcard and he would send them their grade in late June. I was one of those who just couldn’t wait.

I had received an "A" on my research paper and, desiring to do just enough work to get a 90 percent for my final grade, I figured that if I read 7.2 of the 8 books required for the class, that's what I would get. There was only one or two required books for the course; the rest of Lewis' books were divided up by genre/theme/category, and we had to read one from each genre/theme/category. One of the categories was a list of books by authors who influenced C.S. Lewis. When I got around to reading one of those books, I was almost out of steam for the semester. So, I picked the shortest book on the list and read one-fifth of it. I calculated my 7.2 books read and my 100 percent on the paper, turned in my reading report with final grade calculation and ended the semester content in my soon-to-be-confirmed-by-postcard "A-".

A few weeks later, I received the postcard in the mail and immediately noticed that it had an awful lot of writing on it for something that only needed an "A-" inscribed on it. I proceeded to read something along these lines:

"Eric, You read 7.2 books and got an ‘A’ on your research paper, expecting to get an ‘A-’ for the course. You valued your ‘A’ at 100 percent when, in fact, an ‘A’ is only 95 percent. You would have had to receive an ‘A+’ on your paper in order to read 7.2 books and get an ‘A-’. As it stands, you should receive a ‘B+’ for the course. However, I've given you an ‘A-’. READ THE REST OF WILLIAMS THIS SUMMER!!!"

The book professor Root referred to is The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church by Charles Williams. I was grateful for professor Root's overwhelming grace and favor and had every intention of reading the book.

Fast forward to May 2007. I was preparing a sermon on Matthew 6:33-37, Jesus' words on taking oaths and fulfilling vows. My study revealed that Jesus wants us to avoid the way of the world and the sinful habit of making all manner of oaths and vows in an attempt to appear trustworthy and honest when, in fact, we have no intention of carrying out the oaths or vows made. Jesus wants us to be so trustworthy and honest that our word is enough. If it turns out that an oath or vow is necessary to uphold the truth, then it is not wrong to make one (just as Paul did several times in his letters). But by no means should we be making oaths or vows that we don't fulfill or that we make for manipulative purposes. As I thought about an example to use for this sermon, I could think of a good number of cases when someone didn't fulfill their oath or vow to me, but I didn't think that a very appropriate way to communicate the message. I continued to ponder as I studied the passage.

And, as you most assuredly have guessed by now, as I studied it came to mind that I still had never read The Descent of the Dove. If anything qualifies as being an unfulfilled oath/vow, that does, even if the circumstances are a tad unusual. Professor Root gave me a better grade than I deserved in faith that I would finish reading a book over the course of a few months and I, 13 years later, still hadn't read it? Ouch! It's actually quite embarrassing, but it served as the perfect example for my sermon. Of course, the thrust of the message was to be trustworthy and honest, and if I was going to admit that for 13 years I'd been walking around with an as-of-yet uncompleted B.A., I had to close the sermon with a commitment to read the book. I did just that and told the congregation to give me a few months to get and read the book before checking up on me and keeping me accountable on the matter.

I Amazoned the book and my parents passed it along to a team from our home Church that we met up with in Germany for a conference. I started reading it there just over two weeks ago. My wife, on Father's Day, gave me a few uninterrupted hours to finish the last chapter of the book. Now I can tell people that I finally fulfilled my vow, and that I finally finished college, over a decade after receiving my diploma.

I wish I could finish this entry by praising it as the best book I have ever read or by saying that it changed my life in some way. Actually, I found Williams' thick British English distracting and his liberal amalgamation of Church history (labeled "unconventional" by his admirers) unhelpful in conveying his point. Rather, I finish this entry with a simple sigh of relief and a prayer of thankfulness that God continues to change me for the better, even if it involves a bit of shame at times.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Still the Best Movie Ever

I watched my favorite movie about two weeks ago and it hasn't lost a bit of its splendor. The movie is Unstrung Heroes, starring John Turturro, Michael Richards, Andie MacDowell and others. I first saw this film when it was released in theaters in 1995, bought it soon after it was released on video and have managed to watch it about once a year since then. I'll get to the main reason why I like it so much in a moment, but first I want to discuss a realization I had after this most recent viewing that has increased my appreciation for the film all the more.

When I watched the film for the first time, I was taken in by the stellar performances of all of the actors. I was, and still am, a huge Seinfeld fan and it was exciting to see Michael Richards do something great outside the confines of that show. The uniqueness of the storyline also grabbed me as I was, and still am, more prone to watch an action, sci-fi or comedy film than a drama. The affective message of the film missed me back then as my emotional retardation was at an all-time high in my early twenties. The more I watched it however, the more I began to understand what was going on in the film and to appreciate not just the good acting and unique story, but the emotional cord the movie strikes. After about 2000 or so, I've managed to shed a tear at every viewing (sometimes just a small tear, but sometimes I cry so much as to be embarrassed). Very few things do that to me, so Unstrung stays at #1 for that reason also.

But the main reason I like Unstrung so much is because of the worldview it advances. Despite the growing number of successful and excellent Christian films that are making it to the big screen, Hollywood continues to consistently present belief in God as a joke, an error, an offence or, ironically, as an evil. Pastors, priests, missionaries and Christians in general are often presented as exceptionally wicked or exceptionally stupid when, in fact, the exceptionally wicked are infinitesimal in comparison with the total membership of Christianity and the exceptionally stupid exist at every level of society, regardless of gender, race or religion. However, in this movie, which is set in a Jewish context, religion is seen as a vital part of life and a much-needed correction to the metaphysical and methodological naturalism of one of the characters. Admittedly, the religious characters are oddballs but in an endearing sense, not in the stereotypically negative sense as such characters are usually presented. The film's message is that it takes science and religion to make proper sense of life and that embracing one does not demand a rejection of the other.

Allow me to reproduce a dialog from the film that represents what it is trying to say. Four characters are involved: Sidney (the naturalist), Danny and Arthur (Sidney's religious brothers) and Steven a.k.a. Franz (Sidney's son who, after spending some extended time with Danny and Arthur, has begun to engage in some Jewish religious practices). The four are sitting around a table in a coffee shop where all but Sidney have just prayed for their food …

Arthur: May I have the salt, Franz?

Sidney: His name is Steven! And what are you doing teaching my son to pray? You have no right. Everything I stand for is to be able to have these kids to believe in their own abilities. Not some fairy story about God in Heaven. You know where Heaven is? In the minds of morons.

Danny: Well you're wrong Sidney.

Sidney: What?!?!

Danny: You're wrong! Because when you desert the beliefs of your father you are in Gehenna, Sidney. Now it happens, one day…

Sidney: Bullshit!

Steven/Franz: What's Gehenna?

Danny: It's the valley of lamentation, the valley of groaning!

Sidney: It's the valley south of Jerusalem where they burn their garbage!

(Arthur: It's not garbage, it’s junk.)

Sidney: Religion is a crutch! Only cripples need crutches!

Arthur: A crutch isn't bad, if you need it, Sidney.

Steven/Franz: Yeah.

Danny: All of us are cripples in some way.

Sidney: Well, I'm not! (Turning to Franz) Your mother and I have decided, you're coming home.

By film's end, Sidney's aggressively atheistic, overly scientific worldview is revealed as inadequate to deal with the complex and disastrous events in his life, while Arthur and Danny's religious fanaticism shows hopes of being tempered. One is left with the sense that as the family reconciles, Steven/Franz will grow up with a healthy and robust religious worldview, albeit without Christ, and with a properly balanced and informed notion of science. This is the kind of movie I'd love to see produced more often and I don't see myself tiring of it anytime soon. I highly recommend this movie to any who haven’t seen it, which, from my experience, is a lot of you. Watch and be encouraged that at least sometimes, even if ever so rarely, Hollywood can send out a positive religious message.