Best of Erin: Imagine

09/9/2008, 1:00 pm -- by | No Comments

Originally published in October 2007.

Looking through Houghton’s course catalog the other day on a quest to decide my future, I noticed a class called ‘Psychology of Religion,’ which included Sören Kierkegaard in its great theological and psychological thinkers. This was especially interesting to me because I had been hoping to write on the subject of the imagination, and I had thought of that as more of a psychological than theological topic. Kierkegaard tackles the issue of imagination from various perspectives and pseudonyms throughout his writings, but unites theology and psychology in his analysis of the imagination and what it means to humanity. In his work, especially Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling, a possibly preposterous idea arises: that the human being would be incapable of imagination without the existence of God.

Much of Fear and Trembling centers on the story of Abraham and his belief — a prime example of how imagination is feasible only through faith. Commanded to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham dutifully obeyed, believing “on the strength of the absurd” that “through faith [he would not] renounce anything, on the contrary in faith [he would] receive everything.” What makes this belief possible?

Johannes de silentio (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym) details for us the “faith paradox” in which “the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal [: and] stands in absolute relation to the absolute.” In plainer language, a person who chooses for himself to make continual choices for faith in God comes into an appropriate relationship with God (the only real absolute), characterized by a “paradoxical and humble courage.” For this continual choice to be possible, humans must in the first place be able to comprehend something larger than themselves.

In the process of creation God gave to humanity not just a spirit of immediate understanding, but also a perception of God Himself, in whose image humanity was created. This ability to perceive God (but not fully understand Him) is why Abraham could “imagine” that although he fully intended to go through with the sacrifice, God would keep His promise to give him Isaac as well. It’s a logical contradiction, but Abraham’s imagination allowed him to make what Johannes Climacus (a later pseudonym) will call the “leap of faith.”

Making this leap of faith, therefore, is nothing more than humans imagining against logical thought that God will provide or move or manifest His will, then choosing to immerse themselves in the belief that their imagination is the only the beginning of God’s working. It is the choice to believe the imaginative perception God gave to humans.

I am not talking about dreaming crazy situations where God swoops in and, in nothing short of a miracle, saves the day; neither do I mean our usual, modern definition of imagination — that gift required to write a novel or create a beautiful work of art or escape boredom. Though those are manifestations of the ability to imagine, given to humanity by God, the root of all imagination is God’s need for a relationship with man. God gave man the imagination to create scenes or ideas or pictures beyond the immediate, but His love for man requires that this imagination be fulfilled by an absolute belief.

The example of Nicodemus in John 3 is not explicitly given in Philosophical Fragments, but the reference to Nicodemus’ struggle with this very concept was unmistakable, especially considering Kierkegaard’s audience. His chief problem was that he imagined in too literal a sense what Jesus meant by “born again.” His imagination lacked faith’s leap into the absurd and could not process Jesus’ metaphor. Although as a member of the human race he had been given the ability to imagine — the ability to have faith — he was “essentially deceived” into thinking faith was entirely his work. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus saw God as one who would “draw the learned up toward himself” because of a careful Pharisaical lifestyle. Instead, as Jesus instructs and Climacus’ writings echo, he must concede the essence of faith is that God “will appear, therefore, as the equal of the lowliest of persons.”

But this is unthinkable! Disrespectful! Unimaginable!

That is exactly is what Johannes Climacus shows: the human mind and its capacity for imagination are totally reliant on a consciousness of something far beyond it, far greater than it, and yet also of something (Someone) who condescended to become equal to it. This condescension overleaps the limits of mere human imagination.

Only once God “poetized himself in the likeness of a human being” could man begin to truly and imaginatively marvel at God’s love, “for love does not have the satisfaction of need outside itself but within [:]” God’s love, completely justified in His being, still needs man’s imaginative, passionate, absurd faith to be complete.

What could be more preposterous — yet absolutely true — than this?


08/19/2008, 10:00 am -- by | 6 Comments

Watching CNN, I recently caught the tail end of a spot about a legend — or maybe not a legend — that I originally learned about from Chloe. Any guesses? Am I being too vague?

It was the chupacabra (“goat sucker” in English), apparently captured on video by a few policemen in Cuero, Texas. My initial reaction was to call Chloe, probably wake her up, and shout, “You were right! There is a chupacabra!” into her phone. But I\’m not quite that cruel, and besides, the last chupacabra-ish creature that was found in the Southwest turned out to be a mutant coyote — and this one hasn\’t yet been caught.

The whole thing got me thinking about the importance that legends — myths, folklore, old wives\’ tales — play in any society. I know next to nothing about the origin of the chupacabra legend, nor its significance in society today, but it seems to be lodged rather comfortably in the collective consciousness of the people of the Southwest. Could it be that legends are simply ways that we add spice to our history?

History, a controversial term and topic in and of itself, is never exactly what is related to us. There is always more than one side to a story; as I have read recently, “the right story, the whole story, and the true story are very often not all the same thing.” Legends provide us with an outlet for our creativity, our doubt, and our suspicions that what we perceive with our senses may not be exactly what is real.

To continue the cooking metaphor (which some of you know I am very fond of and almost cannot use without hand gestures), the spice added by legend, whether based in fact or fiction, is essential to create what we are in the present. In world history classes students learn of ”˜creation myths\’ from a variety of cultures. Our fascination with our origins, our surroundings, and the unknown in general has certainly made us adept at creating stories to satisfy it.

While many may dismiss stories, myths, or legends as unworthy of belief, let me remind you that belief in something is not the same as enjoying its color, or savoring the emotion, curiosity, or wonder it conjures. I don\’t believe in Santa Claus, or the giant alligators in New York City sewers, or perhaps even the chupacabra, but theirs is not an arena for belief. It\’s an arena for story.

Clash of the Titans LXXXVII: Unions

08/15/2008, 11:30 am -- by | No Comments

In this corner, defending unions, is Erin!

And in this corner, opposing them, is David!

Unions are not the answer to everything, this I readily concede. Often, the face of a union is its representative to the union members, and the encounters with such representatives go something like this:

Enter a discontent, overweight (and overpaid) union representative to Place of Work. She has come to announce a change in appeals policy to union members at said Place of Work.

Lights come up, fluorescent and harsh.

Union rep: Blah blah blah, blah blah, change change, blah blah blah.

Narrator: What she\’s basically saying is, “Work, you poor saps, because by paying your dues, you get security you can\’t get on your own.”

Yes, many would say that unions do little more than whine for better pay, better conditions, and (often in my area) for the political casting-out-to-where-there-will-be-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth of any and all Republicans.

I ask only that the reader would consider for the moment the things that unions still do. They offer an alternative to an expensive (and truthfully, often wasted) college education, instead providing marketable skills, the model of a good work ethic, and a group of people who not only lobby for their needs, but also form a community.

I have seen teachers\’ unions work to get better books for their students and keep their jobs (taking pay cuts to do it); I have seen electricians’ unions work to ensure higher safety standards on industrial and residential jobs (would you like to have someone electrocuted while they install the power lines for your future plasma TV?); I have seen pipefitters’ unions work against the flow of dying industry to keep jobs within an 800-mile radius of their homes, in an effort not to have to resort to taking jobs in California, Alaska, or Iraq.

This summer I attended a union picnic, where I was introduced to at least two dozen men and women I probably will not meet again nor remember very long. But what stuck with me was the overwhelming sense that these people were there for each other: on the worksite and in each other\’s lives. And if that means nothing, yes, I guess unions are out of date.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1

There was a time when this nation needed unions, when they served an important purpose, protecting the poor. Women, children and immigrants were all exploited by employers with no compassion and virtually no government oversight. Children as young as eight or nine slaved away in factories, 16 hours at a time, for poor pay in unsafe conditions. Immigrants were forced to live in ramshackle housing, with exorbitant charges deducted from their meager pay to cover the cost of their food and housing — rendering them little more than slaves.

Those days are gone, yet the unions remain.

It reminds me of the story of the Chinese emperor who invited Mongols into his country to help vanquish foes from the South — only to find that when the war ended, the Mongols chose to settle down and stay, exacting their own methods of exploitation to lighten the purses of the Chinese people. Sometimes the cure brings with it the seeds of the next disease.

I don\’t know many people who would argue the US government does not do enough to micromanage small and large business owners these days. There are 30 different agencies listed on the US Department of Labor website that monitor the various employment practices and environments of American businesses, using nearly 18,000 employees to accomplish this noble task. We are well-regulated.

So what purpose do unions serve now? They are parasites. Unions have become bloated, self-serving political organizations used to control the actions, assets, and politics of the poor schmucks unlucky enough to trapped by them. That\’s all. They hold wages at an artificially high level and stifle productivity, while often protecting workers who are unmotivated, yet militantly committed to protecting their own livelihood.

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Modern Worship

08/14/2008, 10:00 am -- by | 3 Comments

If you know three basic chords on the guitar — G, C, and D — you can play a great deal of modern worship music. Not all of it is that simplistic, but much is.

Sometimes I dread picking out music for a worship service at my church. I have done it many times for at least three or four congregations, all with their good points and bad points, and sometimes, I just hate doing it. When did worship become an automatic, song-based, experiential thing? Can\’t I worship as I weed my garden?

Looking through the hymnal, it struck me that at one time or another, all of the songs in there were the equivalent of ”˜modern worship.\’ Some are older than others — our book includes Celtic melodies, Charles Wesley’s ”˜canon,\’ and other greats like Fanny Crosby.

Suddenly I realized that, despite my condemnation of much ”˜modern worship,\’ there are also many hymns I cannot stand. They seem, to me, to reek of triumphalist, reductionist, cheesy-rhymed stanzas set to unimpressive, repetitive melodies. So many sound so frustratingly similar, just like FM 91.1, Cadillac, Michigan — ”˜Northern Christian Radio.\’

So what do we do with songs we hate, yet somewhere, somehow, seem to lift up the name of the God that we claim to believe, worship, and follow? My tendency is to use those I don\’t agree with theologically sparingly, or not at all. If I wouldn\’t catch myself saying their lyrics, why would I sing them?

And as for ”˜modern\’ songs: we must make sure that when we sing them, it is not in an attempt to ”˜liven people up\’ or ”˜bring them down,\’ but to make them think, with all the steadfast passion of inwardness (thank you, Søren), about humbling themselves completely before YHWH.

And then, let us do this in every other place besides a church meeting.

Bible Discussion — Acts 2

08/13/2008, 6:00 pm -- by | 1 Comment

This week, moves on to the second chapter of Acts.

Genesis: 1-4 | 5-9 | 10-14 | 15-18 | 19-22 | 23-26
27-29 | 30-32 | 33-36 | 37-39 | 40-43 | 44-46 | 47-50
Exodus: 1-4 | 5-8 | 9-11 | 12-14 | 15-18
19-22 | 23-26 | 27-30 | 31-34 | 35-40
Romans: Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3 | Ch. 4 | Ch. 5 | Ch. 6 | Ch. 7 | Ch. 8 (I)
Ch. 8 (II) | Ch. 9 | Ch. 10 | Ch. 11 | Ch. 12 | Ch. 13 | Ch. 14 | Ch. 15-16
Luke: 1:1-38 | 1:39-2:40 | 2:41-3:38 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
11 | 12 | 13 | 14-15 | 16-17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24
Esther: 1-2 | 3-5 | 6-8 | 9-10
Acts: 1

I think the day started out the same as quite a few others the apostles had been having, but something was different in the heavenlies — and suddenly, something was quite different in the Upper room… then throughout Jerusalem… until the whole world was different.

“…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

These verses to me seem a fitting response to those who believe the full power of the Holy Spirit was only available to those present at Pentecost.

Peter used a great excuse for the Apostles to not be drunk: “It\’s only nine in the morning!”

There must be a difference between old wine and new wine?

Josh: Drunk in the Morning
Erin: Phrygia and Pamphylia
Steve: Fear Came
Chloe: Blood Moon

Continued here!

One Hundred Words (27)

08/12/2008, 1:00 pm -- by | 1 Comment

Today I came downstairs, absolutely certain that my brain was going to implode. I had misplaced my passport, and today I am leaving the country.

Up and down the newly carpeted stairs, the dull thudding of my feet and my heartbeat in my ears; unconcealed curses aimed at no one began my day.

I considered crying — but what good would that do? Emotionalism isn\’t really the answer to such a practical problem, and besides, breaking down in a mess of snot and mascara never solved any problems.

It had fallen down behind my jewelry box drawer. How simple.


Bible Discussion — Esther 1-2

06/25/2008, 12:30 pm -- by | No Comments

This week, starts a brand new book by discussing the first two chapters of Esther!

Genesis: 1-4 | 5-9 | 10-14 | 15-18 | 19-22 | 23-26
27-29 | 30-32 | 33-36 | 37-39 | 40-43 | 44-46 | 47-50
Exodus: 1-4 | 5-8 | 9-11 | 12-14 | 15-18
19-22 | 23-26 | 27-30 | 31-34 | 35-40
Romans: Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3 | Ch. 4 | Ch. 5 | Ch. 6 | Ch. 7 | Ch. 8 (I)
Ch. 8 (II) | Ch. 9 | Ch. 10 | Ch. 11 | Ch. 12 | Ch. 13 | Ch. 14 | Ch. 15-16
Luke: 1:1-38 | 1:39-2:40 | 2:41-3:38 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
11 | 12 | 13 | 14-15 | 16-17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24

The Greek word “diaspora,” used to describe the scattering of the Jews in the Old Testament, carries with it the idea of being sown like seeds. Here is a wonderful example of God powerfully using two of his people who were carefully planted in the right place while in captivity.

Esther was really Mordecai\’s cousin, not his niece, which made me wonder why he didn\’t marry her. I mean, Jewish law was weird that way anyway”¦

Mordecai and Hadassah (Esther) were of the tribe of Benjamin, the youngest brother of the twelve. Once again, God uses the least to bring about salvation.

The men believed it would only take one action of the queen to cause a rebellion throughout the nation.

When I heard the story as a kid, I always pictured some kind of beauty contest with everyone assembled, lasting maybe a day or two. I didn\’t realize it was more of a private audition, stretched out over years. A 12-month beauty treatment?!

The feast at the beginning of the book was in the third year of the King\’s reign, but Esther didn\’t appear before him until his seventh year.

Xerxes\’ palace is described in ornate detail, from the colors of the curtains to the “mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble.”

Josh: Kings of Babylon
Steve: The Word of Memucan; Seven Eunuchs
Connie: Thus Prepared
Erin: India to Cush
Chloe: Vashti
David: Hegai, Keeper of The Women

Continued here!

In Anticipation of a Day at the Beach

06/18/2008, 10:30 am -- by | 1 Comment

It really isn\’t a very good beach day at all, if truth be told. Three out of three weathermen on the three out of three reliable channels picked up by my TV antenna prophesied, “Sunny with a high in the mid-80s, with just a breath of wind from the southwest,” but they have been proven wrong once again.

I should feel bad for meteorologists, really. Their entire career is like one very dysfunctional relationship with a mean, nasty, vindictive partner: the weather. It can\’t be predicted, or controlled, or reasoned with, but for some reason they stick with it, treating it nicely and using words like “stationary front” to describe a disastrous atmospheric battleground. I can just see Joe Kopecek of WZZM 13 West Michigan now, shaking his head as the little animated arrow misses the target of “accurate weather prediction”\’ once more, while the lunchtime news anchors laugh a little too gleefully. Fickle wench, he\’s probably thinking. Must be that time of the month.

But despite how much I should feel bad for the meteorologists, I can\’t muster up the sympathy. It\’s a selfish reason: today was (and is!) going to be a day at the beach. I\’ve called up my closest friend, we\’re rummaging around for some SPF 92.9 (I\’m Scotch-Irish, you ball of flaming skin cancer, you!), and looking sadly but resignedly at our bathing-suit-clad bodies in the mirror before slipping on some shorts and tank tops. It\’s a 50-minute drive to our favorite beach at Kruse Park in central Muskegon, and we are going to make a day of it.

The weather, however, really doesn\’t want to cooperate. What was supposed to be mid-80s is, by my porch thermometer, 97. Not so bad, you may be thinking. All the better to go swimming in. I grant you this, but 97-degree weather coupled with a strong wind is NOT good beach weather for two major reasons:

1. Rip tides. The most underrated danger about Lake Michigan, which is full of deceptive sandbars. Once you get out past the sandbar, the tide pulls you further and further out. And of course, the tides are stronger as the wind gets stronger.

2. Sand. Let\’s face it, sand is the devil. I may have read one of my favorite novels, Dune, upwards of 20 times, but romanticizing a desert planet won’t make for a wonderful day at the beach when sand is constantly getting lodged in your every orifice.

Weather notwithstanding, we are headed to the beach, hip-hop blaring from my car Evita\’s speakers, windows down, toting thermoses of lemonade and sandwich bags of grapes and peanuts (traditional beach food). Getting through Muskegon\’s busy streets is a breeze in the early afternoon, and soon enough we are on Sherman Avenue, heading due west. As we chat, I notice much heavier traffic coming toward us. It\’s not that odd, I suppose, for the part of town that we\’re in, but still”¦

We get to the beach and stop off briefly at the bath house. Parking Evita in the shade, we lug our towels, munchies, and obligatory chick lit up and around the beautiful boardwalk (another tradition). From the northernmost point we can see the channel and the high-speed ferry inching its way toward Wisconsin, and at the southernmost we have to turn around, giggling and running away, because we accidentally got caught in a wedding party trying rather pathetically to take pictures.

The wind has died down only slightly as we make our way to the beach itself. The waves are huge, the whitecaps beckoning like whipped cream on top of blueish-green sherbet. I decide to lay out for a bit and soak up some carcinogens while delving into my book. The wind is picking up more and more, blowing sand painfully into my eyes, and we decide that we might as well get in the water now. It\’s cold for late July and refreshing, but the wind whips soreness into our ears if we stay above the water for very long. We don\’t venture out to the sandbar for safety\’s sake, but float closer to shore, telling those deep secrets you only tell to close friends on a day at the beach.

We talk so long, floating on our backs, that neither of us see the storm clouds coming closer from the south until a raindrop hits my nose. Running back to our towels, the sand stings more than ever. We stuff all of our things into the beach bags and trudge back to the car, drenched from the lake and the rain. We proceed to soak the seats of my car, rolling up the windows in vain, driving home in a rather glum mood.

Oh well, I\’m sure we both are thinking. They forecasted better weather for next Tuesday”¦

One Hundred Words (18)

06/16/2008, 10:00 am -- by | No Comments

Twaddle, twaddle, poke and paddle,
tell me what you see,
stirring, arms taut ”˜round that big pot
you mimic, so, with glee.
Oh, I added cumin — but that\’s just human —
or perhaps I like the kick.
To our sweet and savory meat?
Perhaps I should spices pick.
Don\’t worry now, for you\’ll see how
you won\’t tear up at taste.
Though I can\’t deny I\’ve never tried
this partic\’lar baste.

So sat they down, with smile and frown,
Sans restaurant or waiter.
And Cook agreed with Taster, indeed
She\’d use a recipe later.


A Truth Universally Acknowledged

05/20/2008, 11:00 am -- by | 2 Comments

The much-beloved first sentence to Jane Austen\’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”) is fantastic not only for its sarcastic poke at Regency culture, but also for the way it prompts the reader to think in similarly skeptical ways about his or her present context.

One might argue that being a skeptic is not a positive thing, but I believe that skepticism, in and of itself, can be beneficial. With the rise of postmodernism, where truth is here and there and everywhere, a mind that is discerning — skeptical? — is an advantageous acquisition for even the most casual perusal of, well, you know, those deep things in life, like faith, purpose, and relationship.

To deconstruct the idea of a “truth that is universally acknowledged” is a scary process for even the most moderately-minded Christian, and requires a certain depth of faith that I am not entirely sure I possess. In the last three days, my class has been engaging in this deconstructionist style of conversation. I admit that I love the dialogue, but I am terrified by what I know to be my weakness: accepting too much upon hearing it once. To what degree can I remain solid in my beliefs (and what are those anyway?) while still remaining open to the idea that they are an incomplete picture of a God who cannot be completely captured? This is the problem of amateur ecumenics!

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “deconstruct.” I do not mean that by deconstructing we can do away with the idea that a truth (and not necessarily the truth) is universally acknowledged. Rather, I mean that to deconstruct an idea is to attempt to strip it down to its birthday suit and understand it for what it really is: ugly, flawed, and badly in need of a trip to the health club. I believe that a truth can and should be universally acknowledged, but what truth (singular)?

The important thing, I am coming to realize, is that deconstruction is only useful if it is followed by reconstruction. Sure, tear down the poor slob of an idea, but for goodness\’ sake, give him back his clothes, hand him a comb, and point him in the direction of the YMCA. And do it with the knowledge that he might have changed in the process.

Do I believe there is truth that can and should be universal? Yes.
Do I think that I comprehend this? Not fully.
Do others have a better grip on this than I do? Absolutely.
Are all of these others Christians? Certainly not.

God, please grant me the discernment to suspend my biases, my criticisms, even my Western ethos, in favor of a telos that is You.

A Mystery of Delmarva, Part Three

05/16/2008, 11:00 am -- by | 2 Comments

Read part one of this short story here and part two here!

Marianne stood behind the kitchen door, having run in from whatever it was that had happened with Jaffey. She could still see his face — the gaping mouth gurgling out that tortured sound, eyes bulging with intensity, and yet the rest of his body so still and calm. The yard was silent now, and she couldn\’t bring herself to guess where her husband might be. A thousand questions raced through her mind before any of them could form completely, and she couldn\’t seem to catch any of them long enough to think. She eased herself onto the ground, fearing she might faint, not knowing what to do.

After a full ten minutes that might have been an hour or two, she realized that she was more scared of the silence than anything else. Jaffey hadn\’t made another sound, so she convinced herself to act in stages. First, standing to her feet wasn\’t such a big deal — if Jaffey was near, he could just as easily find her standing as crouching. Then, she moved to the window — no use ignoring what was going on. Seeing no one, she gazed out at the barn and the little field that melted off the yard, poor lightish soil from which nothing much liked to grow.

A voice near to her made her practically jump out of her skin. “Mama?” it said plaintively.

“Goodness me! You scared me, darling!” It was Anna, her youngest. Of course it was. She was always too perceptive for her own good, showing up at the strangest, most awkward, most troublesome parts of life.

“What\’s Papa singing?” The question came out of the blue and like a strong wind knocked Marianne off her feet.

“Singing? Ah…I don\’t…know the song,” was all that she could get out.


It was every little child\’s question for everything, but in the 10 or 15 seconds it took Anna to realize that Marianne was distracted and walk away, Marianne had asked it to herself a dozen times or more. Why, why, why? There didn\’t seem to be an answer anywhere.

Anna didn\’t care. She ambled away, her reedy voice lapsing into a hum. It took a few seconds to register with Marianne, but when she recognized the tune, she was astonished.

It was a strange aberration of the wail Jaffey had just uttered. And the fact that Anna — sweet, awkward, four year old Anna — was humming it . . . well, that was something, wasn\’t it?


Anna grew up and wrote down the tune, once, though she never really remembered where it had come from. Jaffey stuck to farming and raising his other animals, but never again did he buy a sheep or a goat, and the old woman never reappeared. Anna inherited the house in Delmarva, and most of this was forgotten.


Anna\’s daughter, Deborah, was cleaning out her mother\’s attic in Delmarva and came across the sheet music her mother had scribbled as a child. It was untitled and unremarkable, but like all good musicians she hummed a few bars. It appealed to her and she stuck it in her pocket.

She had offered to take the dog out for a walk a few days later and while doing so, she pulled the sheet music out and tried it once more. The ravine where she was walking was the same where the old woman had been and where Jaffey had gone to collect his thoughts after that last day of prayer, when Anna had asked her mother the unanswerable why. The melody escaped and echoed and twisted and contorted, turning back into what it had once been even after leaving the lips of the granddaughter of the man who had first given it voice. Deborah kept humming, stock-still.


And I, Erin Clark, stood stock-still years later, scared out of my wits, hearing what once was a prayer.

Bweinh! Soundtrack — Flight of the Conchords

04/25/2008, 5:00 pm -- by | 1 Comment

This article is (for now) the last in a Bweinh! series on inspiring songs or songwriters. You can access the first eleven soundtrack entries here!

“I\’m not crying…it\’s just been raining…on my face…”

If I were to identify the two most common reactions to the music and lyrics of Flight of the Conchords, the guitar-toting duo from New Zealand, they would be as follows:



“Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

Maybe it\’s my penchant for asinine humor, but I do confess to being a fan of Flight of the Conchords. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the deadpan, pop-like, folk-ish, odd comedy couple whose self-entitled HBO show (chock full of their multi-genréd, life-explaining music) has landed them in the spotlight, can just tell a ridiculous story well — and to music!

The show\’s plot inevitably winds around a few of their nonsensical songs, often half-spoken and half-sung. From “Albie the Racist Dragon” to “The Humans are Dead” to “Rhymenocerous vs. Hip-Hop-apotamus,” Flight of the Conchords\’ clever rhymes and rhythms, quick lyrics, and acoustic charm are hard to beat. YouTube can be thanked for a great deal of their fame, with many episodes and concert excerpts available for our listening pleasure (and laughs).

No, they are definitely not among the ranks of the CCM-worthy, so let that be a caveat to the new, more tender listener. But to intelligent audiences who get tired of having to act intelligent, I would say: check them out. Seriously, where else can you hear a rap entitled, “Frodo, Don\’t Wear the Ring”?

Clash of the Titans LXXXI: Prose v Poetry

04/25/2008, 12:30 pm -- by | 4 Comments

In this corner, arguing for the superiority of prose, is Chloe!

And in this corner, fighting on the side of poetry, is Erin!

“I was delayed that afternoon because I had brushed the teeth of a pretty animal that I’m patiently taming. It’s a chameleon. This endearing animal smoked, as usual, some cigarettes, then I left.

I met her on the stairs. “I’m mauving,” she told me, while I myself crystal at full sky I at her look that river towards me.

Then it locks and, maîtresse! You pitcherpin so that at nice vase I sit down if the paths tombs.”

Go ahead. Tell me what that means.

. . .

Yep. I don\’t know, either. That\’s because it\’s poetry, which was never meant to be understood by anyone but the Opium Club.

Think of all your favorite authors when you were little, all the people you learned to read from. Tell me, how many of them were poets? I\’ll wager not a lot, because kids can\’t learn to read on poetry. Why? Because it doesn\’t make sense! And when it does make sense, it\’s talking about feelings or nature or other things that are really, really boring to read about, and have no impact on society whatsoever.

Prose, on the other hand, is not only much easier to understand, but it\’s also really exciting! Are you a science fiction fan? A mystery reader? Narrative and memoir? Do you like straight-up non-fiction about humor, politics, history, or theology? Prose has it all!

And by the way, feel free to show me what Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia would look like in poetry. I would guess that not too many people would read those versions. They wouldn\’t get them, because the author would play around with the words, try to say things in new ways without actually saying them, using things like metaphor and alliteration that tie up your tongue and muddle your brain. Also, they\’d throw in archaic words and references to heathen gods we\’ve never heard of because we\’re good people.

With prose, on the other hand, we can learn about all sorts of different subjects, and authors can communicate important ideas and cultural phenomena. Sound boring? This is exactly what Lewis did with Narnia and Pratchett does with his Discworld series. One draws you into a new and exciting world, while the other keeps you on the floor laughing! When was the last time poetry had you on the floor laughing?

Poetry is nice, I\’m sure, for those ten people in the United States who get it. For the rest of us, though, prose is the more interesting, accessible way to go.

I was in third grade when I discovered poetry. It was during “reading” class, and I had just discovered the amazing talent of tuning people out. We had 20 minutes of silent reading time, to be followed by the rest of our regular class time. Halfway through silent reading, I came across the word “fuchsia,” and I stopped.

Who invented a word like “fuchsia?” I knew it was a color, but what did it mean? I put down my book, picked up my pencil and paper, and proceeded to sit through the rest of silent reading and the first fifteen minutes of class writing about what I thought fuchsia could be. And that was my first poem.

Why tell you this? Because I think that poetry is about something deeper than the conveying of information: it\’s about the beauty inherent in everything that there is to convey. Even tragedy or atrocity point to what could be beautiful and no longer is.

Poetry isn\’t necessarily about an argument, or a description, or a collection of thought; and that is why it is wonderful. Taking words that would not normally complement each other, kneading them into submission (but never entirely!), and hoping that what you come up with will catch someone\’s soul besides your own — that is one way to look at poetry.

In more formal verse, the challenge is to go beyond the rules — of expression, depth, etc. — while obeying the rules of form and meter. Such a collision of goals results in poetry that constantly seems like it is trammeling up a few drops of what really is inside of what we can perceive, like oxygen inside a beaker. We can\’t really see the gas, but the form of the glass contains it just long enough for us to get a sense of what it\’s like.

Prose, while able to accomplish more in the areas of formal cataloguing of knowledge, information, and advertisement, can claim no advantage over poetry in storytelling, social commentary, persuasion, or celebration. Many of the greatest contributions to literature (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to name just a few) contain what? That\’s right, poetry — because it expresses beauty, emotion, and that tugging behind your navel that means that something important is going on.

And just look at the tomes of prose in the world — anything from tax law to textbooks, poorly written novels to theological treatises — where do we draw the line on what gets published? What is quality? What communicates well? Poetry must work much harder to prove its worth, and the poet to prove her or his gift.

What we have to decide is what is more important to us: the dry, systemic, and categorical communication of human experience in truth that is prose, or the vibrant, painful, beautiful communication that is poetry.


Clash of the Titans LXXVIII: Co-ed Dorms

04/15/2008, 2:32 pm -- by | No Comments

In this corner, opposing co-ed dorms, is Steve!

And in this corner, backing them, is Erin!

The context of this clash was whether it would be wise for a Christian college to build a dorm that would house both men and women. I think it would be both foolish and unnecessary.

I strive, in all areas, for a realistic philosophy, based on facts and data. History tells me it is impossible for sinful humanity to eradicate poverty. Obvious physical and emotional differences between the sexes illustrate why (in general) I prefer my firefighters male and my schoolteachers female. I would be a terrible painter, so rather than fighting for a Pyrrhic victory in the name of fairness, I seek the best realistic outcome.

To fight poverty, that means capitalism — using greed to increase wealth for all. In the workplace, that means a system where anyone can work a job, but we don’t lower standards to achieve arbitrary quotas. And when it comes to young adults, it means we consider all the consequences of having them (not just ones on close-knit ministry teams) sleep in close proximity. Without some tremendous benefit, the simple biology of the matter rules it out instantly. I don’t see that benefit.

Erin argues that separating genders “warps the ideals” each holds about the other. That might be true — MIGHT — if we were returning to the days of separate classes and segregated chapel services. But we’re talking about separate sleeping areas — places where men can be fools without irritating women, and where women can be fools without feeling judged by men. We’re talking about a system that makes it easy to see who belongs in a dorm, making sexual assault far more difficult.

Besides, if anything warps gender ideals, it’s co-ed dorms. At Syracuse, they corroded and profaned relationships, breeding misbehavior, distracting from studies, and (from all accounts) eliminating romance. They were a buffet of loveless hookups and debauchery. In this era where so much of our lives are open to the world, there is still something powerful to be said for mystery — for boundaries. Houghton is not Syracuse, but co-ed dorms still do not reflect real life, because they are not much like reality. They are a contrived environment vastly unlike any other in the world, and if you think they’ll help you learn about men, I expect you’ll learn the wrong things.

Living with the opposite sex is not the same as knowing them. I learned about women by growing up with a mother and sisters, and by meeting women outside my home. I don’t understand how seeing female classmates brushing their teeth in pajamas would have improved our interaction — or much of anything, really… At least anything worth improving.

As for “real life,” the point of college is to educate people and prepare them for careers. Thus, it need not reflect “real life” in any significant way; in fact, it’s easier to learn when you don’t have to work for a living at the same time. And so students choose their own schedules; sleep in with few consequences; queue up at certain times to be fed by others; and deal with virtually none of the hassles of independent life. American colleges give students the illusion of maturity while protecting them from real responsibility. Many students never even connect the experience of college with its rapidly rising costs, thanks to loans and parents.

Yet, perversely, when college students speak of being treated as adults, they always want more of the freedom and none of the responsibility. If a college truly wished to prepare students for real life, it would not make it easier for them to act — it would make them more immediately responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is reality.

So not every decision a college makes is based on whether it trusts its students. Some things are just bad ideas. Even for good people.

I agree with what Steve says about college students crying out for “real life” and actually meaning more freedom with less (meaning almost never an equal amount of) responsibility.

Just as much as any other college student, I certainly have wanted to be treated more like an adult and then, when it happens, been a bit overwhelmed by all that it entails. Where I think that I differ is in my idea that although perhaps the modern Christian college is not intended to reflect real life, this can in no way be a positive thing.

Yes, there should be an element of the monastic, but especially at small Christian colleges, that element can very easily be taken and shoved down the throats of students who either do not understand it, do not understand why it is in place, or will continue to act out despite any actions taken to keep them in a study-focused “good student mode.”

Keeping women in one dorm and men in the other warps the ideals that either gender has of each other. Maybe I’m just exaggerating, or my experience has been strange, but this I have seen: when all women live together in one place, and are always together, warped expectations that emerge from that bunch as regards how men act on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve lived in close proximity to unrelated men for extended lengths of time, and I can honestly say that every time, I came away either thinking about, or beginning to understand, some of the differences between the sexes — and appreciating them! This you can’t get from across campus… not really.

As for mystery eliciting romance – if there’s one thing that a lot of (especially conservative) Christian youth need, it’s a deromanticizing of the college experience. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t date, but often that mystery about the opposite sex, when coupled with traditional expectations and parental pressures to get married (so common at Christian colleges…and most colleges, really) translates into a hyper-romanticized experience, which can be all the more disappointing for those who don’t themselves get a ring by spring. Does the sentiment, “God told me that you’re the one I’m supposed to marry!” disturb anyone at all?

I’m not saying that I didn’t appreciate having nights where I could walk from the shower room to my room without having to worry about a guy somewhere (and mutual embarassment). I’m not pretending that in many schools (the one where my best friend attends, Central Michigan, is a prime example) that do have co-ed dorms have seen a corroding of the male-female relationship, or distraction.

But what I am saying is that when the administration tells the student body just how deeply they care for us and believe in our ability to make choices… then go on to delineate, point by point, all of the regulations set in place to keep us dependent, immature, and well-behaved, I get frustrated.

I don’t think that, had South Hall been co-ed by wing as was possible when it was built, Houghton would have seen a major decay in the behavior of its students. To tell someone that they are mature and able and adult, but then not give them the freedom to prove that, is the same as saying that you don’t trust them, and although co-ed dorms would not solve that problem, it would certainly give that freedom.


A Mystery of Delmarva, Part Two

04/8/2008, 6:18 pm -- by | 2 Comments

Read part one of this short story here!

The nightmares had begun that night and slunk steadily downwards until Sunday. Each time, he fell into the twisting, tormenting river, and each time a gnarled, bony hand drew him out like a helpless babe and held him before the strange woman\’s face, a thousand wrinkles on every once-beautiful curve, age spots accumulating like maggots, eyes dulled by the sun. Each time Jaffey would try to hear what she was saying, try to read her lips, try to discern what was going on, and each time the woman would talk to him, threatening his sheep and his goats.

Two weeks after the encounter when the dreams had just begun to dull in time\’s first gentle dose of amnesia, Jaffey\’s sheep started getting sick. One by one, they fell ill: all eight in the span of four days. Jaffey didn\’t tell his wife; he just butchered the meat and gave the extra away.

The old woman\’s voice counted down with him in his head. Eight”¦must have been a blight. Seven”¦that old ram was on his way out. Six”¦not a very strong lamb, was he? Five”¦I should change what pasture they\’re eating; this one has a poison in it. Four”¦that old woman cursed me. Three”¦how did she do it?! Two”¦God please spare my flock!

One”¦ God please spare me”¦

So in church Jaffey prayed the whole service long; through the worship and the prayer and the four altar calls, through the sermon and the offertory and the special. Through the prophecy, the greeting; yes, he even sat down nineteen minutes before the service was to start and prayed though the coffee break. God spare me the only animals I have left. What will I tell my family?

These and a hundred other thoughts raced through his mind as the service began. Like voices in his head, the fears taunted him and tempted him to keep silent. He could imagine them having a conversation, sitting contentedly on his medulla oblongata, massaging it into submission.

“She\’s got to him, that\’s certain,” the first Fear would say, purple and shriveled, youngish voice grating.

“If he can just keep a silence, we have a hold on him for sure.” A second; old as the river, with a voice just as gravelly.

“Truly true. And what do you suppose? A coward like this hasn\’t the voice nor the nerves to do what he has to.” The first again.

“Ha. If he knew that speaking would help him”¦” the second Fear would pause, acidly comedic. “Well, he\’d have been yelping long ago!”

Jaffey saw that it was inevitable, then, that his prayer was no longer a thing of cowardice and silence, but something — anything — else. He opened his mouth and out came the howl.

Marianne wouldn\’t speak to him the whole way home, whether for anger, fear, frustration, or a combination of the three, Jaffey couldn\’t tell. When she had gotten the children into bed she collapsed onto the nearest chair at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. Jaffey had already seated himself at another chair and he looked at her, brow furrowed, in expectation.

She wasn\’t crying. He could tell this when she raised her head to fix him with a gaze and her cheeks were quite dry.

“What was that, husband?”

“Um.” A long pause ensued, in which Jaffey tried for a few words. “It was”¦well, it wasn\’t”¦there were these”¦oh, hum”¦”

After a few more hums, Marianne became impatient. “I know that we attend a church that is . . . progressive, is that what we called it? When we were first going there? But we were never that type, were we?”

Jaffey decided that it was probably best for Marianne to know the story of the old woman, of the sheep, and of the voices that he had heard in his head. When he finished telling it, however, she gazed at him in the same manner as before.

“I knew that you were a bit odd”¦” she began.

“A bit odd?” Jaffey was taken aback. “This isn\’t odd! This is a curse!”

Marianne nodded. “I\’ll give you that. But I\’ll not give you leave to go terrorizing all the neighbors with”¦whatever that was.”

“So what are we to do, then. Doing nothing so far has got us nowhere!”

Marianne shrugged and lifted an eyebrow. “I guess we don\’t raise goats or sheep anymore.”

And that was that.

Or at least, both of them thought so. But sure enough, as the goats grew weaker and weaker and began to die, Jaffey had his doubts. Finally there were just two left — the two that had always been the most especially hardy, and even they were sickly, ribs poking out, weak bleats, thinning coats. It was on a sunny afternoon that Jaffey was leaning on his garden hoe, chewing his lip and watching the two of them graze pitifully that he caught a dark shape moving out of the corner of his eye.

The old woman.

He lunged toward her as she was drawing her brown corduroy pack around her body to the front. She was quick, though, and darted away. Around the barn he chased her — how could she move so fast? — until he could bear it no longer. He stood in one place…

…and the wailing prayer came forth again, stopping the old woman in her tracks. Snarling, she made a dash for the nearest window and Jaffey stalked toward her awkwardly, still howling his prayer. It was not made up of words, but neither did it come from a string of awkward vowels. There were ups and downs and crows and ululations and it stopped and started and stopped and started again. It sounded like fourteen or fifteen roosters, or what roosters would sound like, could they crow backwards and just barely out of unison.

There was a weight — a hand — on Jaffey\’s shoulder and he whirled, knocking the shape down. Gazing down, horrified, he ceased praying.

Marianne lay on the ground, disbelieving and in shock. Backing away, Jaffey spluttered even fewer intelligible syllables than his prayer had contained as she rose to her feet and ran toward the house.

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