Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, August 2011

  • Tattly Temporary Tattoos. Do your kids (or you!) like to wear temporary tats? Here's a site where you can design your own! (Or choose from a collection of other user-designed ones, many of them quite clever.)
  • 10 Cool Star Wars-Themed T-Shirts. Another clever user-created collection, this one extending the apparently-eternal Star Wars franchise. Some of these are quite funny.
  • 50 Completely Useless Signs. Needs no explanation. Many are hilarious.
  • Beware Romantic Pornography. Here's a great piece from the Gospel Coalition, discussing some of the difficulties of "romantic comedies" and how movies often skew our expectations of relationships.
  • The 24 Types of Libertarian. Political cartoons always catch my eye. Are there more types than these? Maybe so— I can imagine some hybrids of these. Perhaps these are the 24 base types.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Assuming the gospel

[M]any Christians assume the gospel . . . but are passionate about something on the relative periphery: abortion, poverty, forms of worship, cultural decay, ecology, overpopulation, pornography, family breakdown, and much more. By labeling these complex issues 'relatively peripheral' I open myself to attack from as many quarters as there are subjects on the list. For example, some of those whose every thought is shaded green will not be convinced that the ecological problems we face are peripheral to human survival. But I remain quite unrepentant. From a biblical-theological perspective, these challenges, as serious as they are, are reflections of the still deeper problem - our odious alienation from God. If we tackle these problems without tackling what is central, we are merely playing around with symptoms. . . . [W]hat does it profit us to save the world from smog and damn our own souls?

--D. A. Carson, "The Biblical Gospel," p. 83 of For Such a Time as This (HT: Dane)

Inconsistency in opposition to civil unions

I understand why many Christians oppose "marriage" when it comes to gays and lesbians. As a word to describe that relationship, "marriage" is a poor one. "Marriage" is (at least in my mind) an institution that is established by God, not by the state, and should therefore be defined according to God's definition of it (which I would say He has done in His word, the Bible, declaring that "marriage" is a relationship between a man and a woman— not a man and multiple women, a woman and multiple men, an adult and a child, or two or more people of the same gender).

However, what I understand less is why many Christians single out homosexual relationships with regard to ANY civic recognition of the relationship present? Why do we oppose, say, "civil unions" for homosexuals who wish to express their commitment in the relationship, but we oppose ONLY homosexuals in this way?

There are many civic (and by civic I mean, that which is governed by the civil authorities) implications to the recognition of a relationship that marriage (and currently, with a few exceptions, ONLY marriage) brings. There are rights: to receive family benefits on insurance; to have visitation access during hospital stays; to exercising certain legal and financial options; and regarding taxation and inheritance laws. There are also responsibilities: at base, to an implicit (if not explicit) commitment to fidelity and the longevity of the relationship; to exercise responsible care and decision-making of mutual interest (think of a person's role in determining the hospital care of his/her spouse). These are, of course, just to name a few in each case. In short, a relationship that is publicly, civilly recognized is substantially advantaged in our culture.

That the relationship is based (at least in part) on sinful behaviors and lifestyles doesn't negate the fact that there is nevertheless a real relationship present. Why should that "kind" of relationship alone face the opposition that it does from Christians? Have we determined that those relationships are illicit whose origin and essence is/was established (at least in part) by sinful acts? If so, they we are highly inconsistent in our exercise of this determination.

If we were consistent, we would likewise oppose the public, civic recognition of, for example, a marriage that is the result of an adulterous affair; marriages wherein the couple had sex before marriage; and other like relationships. So, for example, the probate courts would be required to nullify an inheritance for mistresses or illegitimate children; insurance companies would not be legally allowed to provide coverage for a spouse if he/she was the former adulterous partner of their current husband or wife (and the previous marriage ended in divorce because of the adultery); a man who fathers a child out of wedlock would not be allowed to visit that child should the child be in the hospital. And so forth.

My point is this: there are MANY relationships in our society that have as their basis some sinful origin. In many of these, that sin has never been admitted or confessed, no discipline was ever exercised nor the sinner restored, and no reconciliation ever sought or achieved between the sinner and the one sinned against. Are we ready to say that we should simply not recognize these relationships, real though they may be, because of the sinful origins?

If so, we have a lot of inconsistency to clean up.

Monday, August 29, 2011

An exciting vision for the church

A little over a year ago, one of my good friends (I'll call him Joe) was being "exited" from his position as a pastor. The beginning of this happened to be at the same time as General Assembly, so I was able to spend some time with Joe as he went through it, as were some other friends. At this year's G.A., one of our mutual friends (who I'll call Steve) and I were talking and he asked how Joe was doing. Then Steve asked, "what was the real issue for him, anyway?"

I replied that, from what I understood, some of Joe's fellow Elders felt that he wasn't doing a good job casting an exciting vision for the congregation. The Elders wanted him to be doing something flashy and attractive, different from what he was doing. Joe's approach to pastoral ministry is simply to preach and teach the Word, administer the Sacraments, pray for the congregation, and visit them in their times of need.

Steve said, "That IS an exciting vision for the church!"

I agree. It seems to be trendy to shape pastoral ministry to look like Steve Jobs and Apple, or some other model of sexy and new styles of product promotion. Obviously, some pastors have had some success in drawing in larger crowds when they have approached ministry this way. And something in, I think, most of us wants our congregation and "my ministry" to stand out as distinct and different from the rest.

The problem is, there's nothing of these in the Bible as the reason why the Kingdom expands. While the growth of the first-century church has seldom been rivaled, the methodology, vision, and mission have essentially been these same things: preach and teach the Word. Administer the Sacraments. Pray for one another. Serve one another in various times of need. Build real relationships, and minister to each other within those.

Which means that my ministry shouldn't really be all that different from the pastor down the street or the one across town. And that is just fine, because it's not really my ministry, anyway, is it?

I'm reading Eugene Peterson's excellent memoir, The Pastor, and he touches on many of these same points. At one point, he directly addresses what a problem this is (and where it comes from):

This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric. But this was worse. This pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity violated everything— scriptural, theological, experiential— that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me as far worse than the earlier erotic and crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life in which the church had ordained me— something on the order of the vocational abomination of desolation.
Eugene Peterson, The Pastor (New York: HarperOne, 2011), pp. 112-113

I prefer Joe's exciting vision to the flashy, sexy, pragmatic approaches that I get direct-mail promotion for on a weekly basis. Don't you?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Facebook is the new AOL

In 1991, a cascading series of events led to what was, for me, a huge aspect of my life. It went like this:
  • Because I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a new Apple Macintosh computer— the original LC, with a 13" (not 12") CRT monitor and the brand-new, first-ever ink-jet printer, the StyleWriter. (So +5 points for me, for my Mac-user street-cred.)
  • As a new college freshman, I happily employed the use of my new credit card, pitched to me by someone on the front lawn of the student union during the first week of classes, to purchase a Zoom 2400-baud dial-up modem.
  • Included in the modem box was a floppy disk for a new online service, America Online (abbreviated AOL, which always bugged me), which I also used my new credit card to sign up for in early 1992.

Yes, as it turns out, I was a charter-member of AOL's online service. Charter, as in, within a few months of first accepting users. My username then was BigEd3 ("BigEd" was already taken, and I probably could have had "BigEd1"— but I liked the number 3, 3 being part of my number on every jersey I wore in high school).

AOL was far better than the other options, most of which long ago became defunct: CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie were all much earlier to the scene, but lacked the savvy and attractive style of AOL's early offerings. I actually tried all four— and later was a pretty committed CompuServe user (after it had essentially adapted versions of AOL's best attributes)— but at first, AOL was the real thing. It had a graphical interface, for starters; the others were command-line based (think of Dos— if you even know what that is— and imagine trying to consumer internet-like information and communications in that environment). It also had things like chat rooms (before they were so creepy), Instant Messaging, and the infamous "You've Got Mail!" e-mail.

Back then, AOL and the others were closed systems. They were envisioned as a sort of self-contained online community, which they effectively succeeded at becoming. As this was long before the mainstreaming of the internet or anything online, these were communities comprised of geeks, nerds, and tech-wizzes, but they were still communities. And they were entirely self-contained; for a year, my e-mail in AOL allowed me to e-mail other AOL users, and no one else. After then, I could send and receive e-mail to others (appending the requisite to the end of my username), but very little else outside of the AOL world.

Little by little, AOL shifted from being a closed-system online community to becoming essentially a conduit for internet content. Now, it is something of a "start page +services" competing with Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft's offering du jour, and others. AOL was a monster in the online/tech world, but now they are merely a subsidiary entity in a (much) larger corporate environment. While AOL was once the largest service by a vast margin, now declaring an AOL e-mail address will garner snickers from some.

So much of what I see in Facebook today reminds me of AOL. Like AOL, it has emerged as the online community of choice by most, despite neither being the first on the market (MySpace, of course, pioneered the social networking concept) nor absent of competitors (Google+ merely being the most recent). Like AOL, it existed as a completely closed system for a while, and users were content because they lacked any real vision of what more openness could offer them. Like AOL, it began opening up starting with e-mail; an announcement was made months back that non-Facebook-users would be able to send "" e-mail to users, and vice versa.

Also like AOL, Facebook has some in-system aspects that are popular enough to remain closed for now, but which I suspect will eventually open up. Case in point: Instant Messaging / Texting. AOL was a leader in the Instant Messaging realm, and many people still have and use an AIM (an acronym for "AOL Instant Messaging") ID. At first, though, you could only use their IM service if you were a subscriber; then it was only if you used their interface (but non-subscribers were allowed in). Now, anyone can get an AIM ID and use it through whatever client they wish. Likewise, Facebook has just announced a new app for mobile phones that will allow users to employ Facebook's servers to send and receive SMS and MMS messages on their phones— thus saving texting fees. Of course, you have to be a Facebook user to make use of the app. (The inconsistent element here is that Facebook users are not paying subscribers as AOL users were. Or maybe as AOL users are— do people still pay for the "privilege" of an AOL e-mail address?)

One of the points made in the news piece is what actually got me thinking about this parallel: Brian Cooley of CNET responded to Robert Siegel's question in this way:

SIEGEL: What are some potential downsides, though, to Facebook?
COOLEY: Well, when you install anything from Facebook, you get that sort of - that tinge of invasiveness. That's something where Facebook is a, let's say a contentious entity. Whereas most of us will look at email and texting and we'll see that as, yeah, those are just generic utilities - I don't feel like there's anybody in there promoting it or bringing it to me in a way where they want something, where they have an ulterior motive.

My point is this: I've been doing this long enough that I can remember when e-mail wasn't just a "generic utility"— in fact, it was very brand-specific and tied to a particular service. And I would guess that we're not too far out from the time when such SMS/MMS conduits, whether offered through Facebook, Google, a phone service carrier, or something else altogether, will also be considered another part of the "generic utility" category.

The interesting thing is that so much of Facebook's rise and success shares markers in common with AOL that we might do well to ask: is this just a strange coincidence? Or is there a pattern emerging of how internet-based companies experience their start, surge to success, then ebb into obscurity?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This is the letter that was mailed out to my congregation last week:

Dear HWPC family,

Our Lord has blessed us with His great mercy and grace, building, growing, and sustaining us as His people! I trust you join me in finding rest and peace in Him.

Four years ago, the congregation of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church voted unanimously to extend a call to me to serve as the congregation’s Pastor. These several years have been a great blessing to all of us as the Lord has done so much work in our midst: an anniversary celebration, election and ordination of a number of new officers, calling Doug Barcroft as Associate Pastor, and of course the addition of so many of you! (Nearly 75% of our current congregation have come since I’ve been here.)

It was clear to both Marcie and me in August of 2007 that God was calling us Hickory Withe— as Proverbs 16:9 reminds us, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” The Lord gave us love and commitment for this congregation, this community, and the work He called us here to do. When we moved to Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church, we came with the hope that this might be our only move!

Just as that calling was clear, however, what is also clear to us at this point is that our time here is coming to a close, as the Lord is now calling us elsewhere. I have received and accepted a call to be the Senior Pastor of Dove Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Having prayerfully considered this course and calling together, and sought the counsel of a number of wise friends, I am able to embrace this new call with full confidence.

I am therefore resigning as the Senior Pastor of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church. In order to most effectively prepare for the time of transition before the congregation, I am committed to remain for two months; my last Sunday will be October 23. During that time, I will be working closely with Pastor Doug, the Session and Diaconate, and the administration volunteers to make the transition as smooth as possible.

We will have a congregational meeting on Sunday, August 28, in order to have a vote to accept my resignation. During that time— or anytime— I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you may have about what is next for the Eubanks family. (Questions about what is next for the congregation should be directed to Pastor Doug or the Session.)

Though my relationship with you as your pastor will change, our love for you will not change. I am thankful that one day all believers will be together in the New Jerusalem. Meanwhile, I trust that the future for Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church is bright, and that the Lord has great things in store.

In His love,

Ed Eubanks, Jr.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A new call

After almost exactly four years as the Senior Pastor of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church, I have received (and accepted) a call to serve Dove Mountain Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tucson, AZ as Senior Pastor.

Marcie and I visited Tucson and interviewed with the folks at DMPC in late July, after numerous conversations and dozens of e-mails exchanged. In every step of the process, and with every new relationship forged, it was clear to both of us that the "fit" with that congregation was a great one. We were also stunned by the beauty of Tucson and of southern Arizona in general.

The ministry at Dove Mountain Church is (and will be) in some ways very different from Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church, and in other ways it will be so very similar. We have great anticipation for what the Lord will do with both— we look forward to the new ministry in Tucson while remaining greatly interested in how God will continue to prosper the work in Hickory Withe, TN. We consider it a great blessing to be associated with both of these congregations, and of course we are sad to be leaving our family in Hickory Withe, even as we are excited to join with our brothers and sisters in Tucson.

We are making plans to move in late October, after attending to many details in Tennessee. Not least of these is the hope to effectively "hand off" the work of ministry here to the Session and other leaders, and set things in place for an ideal transition to the new Senior Pastor. Of course, we will also be hoping to sell our house, get everything packed, and visiting as many of our friends and family as we can before leaving.

Please keep us in your prayers, as well as these two congregations in their respective times of transition. Our Lord is great and He is good, and will carry us through this to His glory!

Friday, August 19, 2011

On "Christian Horror" as a film genre

A friend of mine recently commented on the movie, Satan Hates You (to be released to DVD in the UK), asking, "why is there not MORE Christian horror (or "scare" I guess)?" This is a good question, especially for those who are outside the church.

Incidentally, it's the same issue at stake for things like "Hell Houses" around Halloween: can people be "scared" into believing in Jesus? Should they be?

All of these— "Christian Horror" movies, Hell Houses, and so on— are based on the premise that the most effective way to motivate belief is to present the fruit of disbelief. Christians believe that those who do not have salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning work will suffer judgment and condemnation as punishment for their sin. The basic point of these approaches to "evangelism" is to present the reality of this as starkly and, yes, as frighteningly as possible.

What is the typical result? From reports I have heard from friends whose congregations hold such events is that many express their desire to avoid such a fate. What comes after this expression, though, is the key; it is certainly possible for someone to face the reality presented in a "Christian Horror" movie, believe that, make a response out of fear, and never know the hope of the whole Gospel.

A fellow pastor told me he once had a young man indicate his desire to join the church, and so he met with the man to explore this desire. He asked the young fellow, "why do you want to join the church?" The man answered, "because I don't want to go to hell." My friend then said, "and on what basis do you think you should be spared going to hell?" and the man responded, "because I heard a preacher tell us all about hell, and he said, 'if you don't want to suffer in hell, then walk forward and indicate your desire to unite with the church.' And I did!" The name of Jesus never crossed the man's lips, in spite of his sense that he should join the church and avoid the perils of eternal condemnation.

This is my point about Hell Houses and hell-oriented movies, as well. While they teach plenty about hell and probably a good bit about Satan (probably even a fair amount about the viewer, and his sinful condition), do they offer anything of Christ? The Gospel must be much more than simply telling me about my sin; it must primarily be about Christ and His work, in addition to my need for Him.

Finally, I also have substantial questions about using fear as the primary means by which we urge people to God. The clear teaching of Scripture is that God does not seek merely to scare us, but to be reconciled to us. If the central idea of our evangelistic outreach efforts is how afraid we should be, how do we then teach those new professing believers that their primary orientation to God is not one of terror but of adoption?

"For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'" (Romans 8:15)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Assurance and the Lord's Supper

In the first two installments about "preparing our hearts" for the Lord's Supper ("what it DOESN'T mean" and "what it DOES mean"), I looked at some biblical reasons why we should see this sacrament as the means of grace that it is (and also some Catechism questions that speak to the issue). In other words, why our "preparation" for Communion ought not become a means of works!

There is one lingering issue that I want to address regarding the Lord's Supper: the matter of assurance.

If the brunt of our preparation for Communion is focusing on Christ's work on our behalf— even in light of reflecting on our sin and want, and how desperately we need Him— then it is certainly possible that some who endeavor such preparation would occasionally (or even frequently) struggle with questions of assurance of their salvation.

Once again, our Westminster Larger Catechism is so helpful here. Here is question 172:

May one who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer: One who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God's account has it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord's Supper, that he may be further strengthened.

I think when most American evangelicals consider the question, "may one who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord's Supper?" the knee-jerk answer would be a resounding, "NO!" Again, I think this reflects misconceptions about what it means to be "prepared" to take the Supper, and about the Supper itself.

I love how the Westminster Divines correct this mistaken instinct. The bottom line? "He may and ought to come, that he may be further strengthened."

Let's consider two things about this: the reasons why he may and ought to come, and the hope for what the result of his coming would be.

First, why may he come at all (let alone ought to come)? The Catechism gives several reasons:
  • He may have true interest that he isn't yet assured of. Someone who lacks assurance needs to be reminded that their "interest" in Christ (not interest like a hobby or curiosity, but interest in the sense of our inheritance) is not based on their perceptions. No matter what one's sense of "feeling" close to God, assured of faith, etc., one whom Christ has claimed is claimed for good!
  • His own soul's inclinations may contradict his lack of assurance. The Divines point out that someone who is apprehensive about the fact that he isn't in Christ may, by nature of the apprehension, have evidence that he is! Likewise, the desires to be found in Him, and to turn from his sin, are both indicators that, according to God (though not necessarily according to the unassured), he does in fact have saving faith. Why? Because Scripture is clear that none of these come to a man (or woman) apart from the Holy Spirit, and that in fact we, when our souls are dead in our sin, seek out the opposite. The only reason for the inclinations mentioned here is that the Spirit has regenerated the soul of the unassured, has removed his heart of stone and given him a heart of flesh.
  • The Sacrament itself is appointed for such relief. There is a reason why we call it one of the "means of grace"— it is a means by which God communicates and affirms to us His grace. When a believer comes to the Sacrament, he/she may rarely wrestle with assurance or he/she may regularly doubt, but the Supper is itself a way that God ministers to Christians by affirming ("signifying and sealing" is the language the Westminster Divines used) to them that He has poured out His grace for their sins, and reconciled them to Himself. In it, He grants "relief to weak and doubting Christians… that they may be further strengthened."

This naturally leads us into the hope of what may result from the coming of the doubting Christian. What is that result? That they be affirmed in the "promises made," that they be "further strengthened," and that they be generally given greater assurance and hope in their own salvation. In other words, that where they doubt before, they have greater confidence after; where they are weaker in faith prior to coming to the Table, their faith will be stronger afterward.

There is that phrase in-between, that urges, "he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved." What does this mean? I think it generally points the doubting Christian back to what I have already discussed: that he/she consider the depth and breadth of their sin, and consider also the enormity of the Cross to cover their sin. After all, whether we are conscious or mindful of it or not, all of us are weak in our faith, and have cause to doubt our worthiness (or even to be certain of our unworthiness!)— but all of us likewise have great hope in the effective and finished work of our Savior, who leads us to deeper awareness of our atonement in Him.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Inconsistency and the needs of children

While reading up a bit on civil unions recently, I came across an article from a website called New Democracy. The article is by John Spritzler, and is entitled, "Legalizing Sam-Sex Marriage: What is at Stake?" (from February 27, 2008).

I don't expect that most of my tens of readers will agree with very much of the politics or social values of New Democracy. Still, I have to give Mr. Spritzler credit for his efforts toward fair and balanced writing here, even though the piece is an editorial. (And I will hasten to add, New Democracy is not your typical liberal/left wing website.) What's interesting to me, though— and may be of interest to you also, if you have a high view of the sanctity of life— is what comes out in the aforementioned article.

Spritzler asks, about half-way through the article, "Does society have a legitimate interest in defining who may marry?" Here's his answer:

The answer to this question, as almost everybody agrees, is that, in contrast to a friendship or business relationship, a marriage relationship can (which is not to say "should") produce children, and society has a legitimate concern with the interests and welfare of children. The point is simply that there is only one fact about a marriage relationship that both distinguishes it from other kinds of relationships and gives society a legitimate reason for legislating who may enter into this relationship (i.e. marry each other), and that is its potential for producing children with society's formal approval.

He goes on to conclude (in describing why, for example, "society" is right to restrict the marriage between siblings):

The reason nobody objected when the British government recently ordered the dissolution of the marriage of a man and woman, who found out only after they married that they were siblings separated at birth, is that virtually everybody believes that the welfare of children trumps the desires of adults.

Wait, what? Did he just assert that the welfare of children being more important than the desires of adults is nearly-universally agreed upon?

If that is the case, here's a HUGE inconsistency— because I think he might be the only one who really believes this is true. In fact, I would argue that a huge percentage of U.S. citizens— certainly better than half— would concede this point as wholeheartedly as Mr. Spritzler.

Why do I say that? Because this is actually the very premise on which most Pro-Life arguments are based. When positively formed, they go like this:
The welfare of children trumps the desires of adults.
Unborn children are children.
The welfare of unborn children trumps the desires of adults.

Or formulated another (more complex) way:
The welfare of children trumps the desires of adults.
Unborn children are children.
Abortion threatens the welfare of children.
Regardless of how much an adult may desire an abortion, the welfare of children trumps that desire.

It used to be the case that a counter-argument was offered for the premise "Unborn children are children"— but not so much anymore. The idea of viability aside, medical science has demonstrated pretty clearly what Pro-Life folks have said all along: that life and personhood begins far earlier than abortion legalization proponents are comfortable limiting abortion to. This is not their real argument.

The real argument for the typical abortion legalization proponent is actually the exact opposite of Mr. Spitzler's assertion: the desires of adults trumps the welfare of children.

This is what makes the debate so problematic: the fundamental values and core assumptions of the two sides are so entirely different. On the one hand, Pro-Life folks will argue that the life of the child is of extremely high importance. (There may be some variation there on this, as when the life of the mother is at stake: some would still choose to move ahead and leave the result up to God, while others would condone "terminating the pregnancy" in such a case.) The circumstances that begat the unborn child are not insignificant to the care for the mother, but are irrelevant to the value of the life of the child.

On the other hand, the dominant core value for those who support legalized abortion on demand is that the desire, preference, whim, or happiness of the mother is paramount. Why else would there be such adamant insistence on even late-term abortions being readily available, and outcry when they are opposed? Why else would it be medically acceptable for a woman carrying twins to simply decide two is too much to handle? As I mentioned previously, abortion is simply a matter of convenience for many.

There are many, many difficult aspects of this debate, and inconsistency is sort of the dark underbelly of it all.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why "The Sing-Off" is the best reality competition talent show

We've watched our share of reality shows on TV. Over the years, we've watched Survivor (several seasons, though we dropped it last year and didn't miss it a bit); Big Brother (maybe half a season… not so much); Last Comic Standing (loved it, but it's inconsistently scheduled); America's Got Talent (we catch this one fairly regularly, though we tire quickly of the bickering and prating between the judges); The Voice (a newcomer that we enjoyed, though it was pretty predictable toward the end); and The Sing-Off (I think we've seen every episode of this one). I've also seen episodes of American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance?, Fear Factor, and probably a couple of others. I'm sure there are a lot of these that I/we haven't even heard of, and more that are on the way. It seems TV producers have devised a fairly inexpensive genre of programming that sells.

Of these, my favorite by far is The Sing-Off. It is musical talent competition show, wherein the singing groups are all a cappella— that is, they sing with no accompaniment other than their voices and bodies, and each other. It is hosted by Nick Lachey (from the boy-band, 98 Degrees, so even the host is a group-harmony singer), and the judges are Ben Folds (formerly of Ben Folds Five, a spookily-smart and highly-trained musician), Nicole Scherzinger (lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls), and Shawn Stockman (one of the boyz in Boyz II Men). All of the production staff are also people with a cappella backgrounds. Compared to the other talent-oriented competition reality shows, I think The Sing-Off is the best, by far.

So, why do I think The Sing-Off is the best talent-styled show going? Here's a handful of reasons:
  • No embarrassing auditions. In so many of the other shows, part of the popularity— perhaps even the main draw for some— are the early audition episodes, wherein someone who hopes to be a viable contender is mercilessly exposed to be far less talented than is necessary. While I recognize and understand the morbid way that this is entertaining ("like watching a train wreck" is the accurate expression, I believe), I am always disappointed and dismayed at how much we love to revel in the embarrassment of others (and/or the cruel treatment they inevitably receive from one or more of the judges). Some will say, "they NEED to be told that they stink" which may be true, and it's too bad they didn't have a friend who loved them enough to keep them from the embarrassment of national TV— but while they may "need" it, we don't "need" to see it. The Sing-Off clearly has held auditions of some sort, and there are references made to them on occasion, but we are spared them; instead, they simply present the top performers from the auditions, which still leaves plenty of room for favorites to emerge and healthy competition to arise.
  • No rude judges. Again, it seems like the "hook" for many of the talent shows is the showcase of a single brash, know-it-all judge (often British!) who is give free reign to be as merciless to the contestants as he wants to be. This summer's America's Got Talent is the epitome of this, so much that the rude one has become the target of vitriolic distaste from not only the contestants, but the other judges and even the host. On The Sing-Off, to the contrary, the judges are all polite and strive to find something to affirm in every act, even when they have words of critique. They also clearly enjoy one another's company, which only helps the general tenor of the show. (To its credit, The Voice also demonstrated this, as well as the next one.)
  • No pointless judges. Most of the shows I've watched seem to have a judge whose purpose is uncertain. They aren't recognized authorities in the talent industry, but perhaps are there as a pretty face; alternatively, they may actually be someone who has "made it" talent-wise, yet their "judging" seldom, if ever, approaches anything of real substance. At best, they serve as the counter-balance to the jerk-judge, providing the always-affirming, over-considerate voice that loves everyone simply for exercising the bravery to audition. The Sing-Off has a balanced panel of judges— all three are accomplished musicians who are quick to offer intelligent insight into what worked and what didn't in the performances they see. There are almost always words of criticism, but they are presented gently and considerately; there are also always words of affirmation and encouragement. Each judge has their own style and personality that comes through in their judging, but none of them are rude OR pointless.
  • No divas. I don't think I've ever seen a group win one of the other competition shows— even if there have been groups competing. It has always been a single, solo act that wins the show (unless you count the ventriloquist dummy in 2008's America's Got Talent). Maybe I'm wrong; let me know in the comments if you know of a group that has won one of these. Of course, a solo act cannot win The Sing-Off, because everyone competing is part of a group. This is refreshing, because it displays a dependence on teams and groups that is noticeably absent in most of American culture apart from elite professional athletics (and even there we might tend to follow individual stars and players rather than the whole team).
  • Fair competition. I don't have a problem with the fact that a radio-pop styled singer (almost) always wins American Idol— but I feel like the country singer or the folk musician who wants to enter that competition doesn't get a fair shake. Likewise, when America's Got Talent's host turns the voting to the public and says, "who has the most talent?" I need to know what the criteria are to pick between a dance group, a classical/opera-styled singer, a performance artist, and a guitar-playing folk-rock singer. Is it fair to say that one of these has "more talent" than the others, because they got the most votes? With The Sing-Off, it is a single style of singing (yet it transcends genre), which means it is far easier to know what the criteria are. It's simply a fair competition.

Remember, I'm speaking strictly of talent competition shows, so Survivor and others don't fit into this comparison. And, to be fair, there are other shows that fit most of the above (Last Comic Standing comes to mind), though not all of them.

One more disclaimer: The Sing-Off has, for the first two "seasons," been on for only a matter of weeks (around Thanksgiving and Christmas, generally). They've announced that it will show for season three starting in September— much earlier than they have begun in the past. So, we may see some of these erode (like the auditions aspect) this year. But I hope not.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Inconsistency in laws restricting "Sharia" law

I've caught a few bits in the news lately about laws that are passing across the country regarding "Sharia" and its restriction. Specifically, these laws state that courts and judges are restricted from referring to Sharia in their decisions— or the laws are more broadly-written, restricting reference to "foreign" laws.

Now, I am in no way a constitutional scholar or a legal professional; that said, I'm not really sure if those in the first category stand much of a chance with regard to constitutionality, given that they single out the teachings of a specific religion (Islam) and suppress it, which sounds like a fairly straightforward conflict with the "free exercise clause" of the First Amendment. (At least one state that has passed such a law includes language within the law describing why it is NOT in violation of this clause, though when reading through some of that language it felt a bit like something caught between the fallacy of "it isn't because we said it isn't" and a classic case of "she doth protesteth too much".) But I'll leave that for the Supreme Court to sort out; I'm frankly not all that concerned with these laws.

Where my concern is today is that the broader laws, restricting any reference to "foreign" laws, are problematic in their inconsistency— though not in the ways that the "political left" is commonly attacking them. Here's what I mean…

First, let's consider what Sharia actually is. Depending on who you listen to, Sharia might simply be a general set of ethical principles directing Muslims in their consideration (probably a bit watered-down), or it might be the tool of extremists to justify acts of terrorism with religious texts (probably a bit over-simplified and alarmist). The fact is, different Muslims view Sharia differently. There are cases where Sharia is the state rule, and this sometimes has horrifying consequences; and it should be raise cautious curiosity to consider what it may mean if parts of Britain are designated as under Sharia, as has been requested by some communities. However, to assume that ALL Muslims believe that the right application of Sharia means that a rape victim should be stoned for adultery is likely akin to assuming that all Christians believe that we should stone homosexuals and disobedient children.

What is interesting about these new laws is that they are coming out of a base of "right-wing" conservative political efforts that are grounded in evangelical Christians. Many of the politicians who are standing up in favor of these laws (or at least in open opposition to any allowance of Sharia) are the same ones who are working hard to build their case that they are the heirs apparent to the conservative evangelical vote. They are appealing to the "Christian nation" ideas and presenting the mere acknowledgement of Sharia as a threat to the very foundations of "Christian America".

The problem is that the laws being passed that restrict any reference to "foreign" laws implicitly do two things at once: first, they erect a view of religious law as inherently "foreign" (because it is inconceivable, I suppose, that someone could be both a Muslim and a U.S. citizen, or that whole groups of Muslims could assemble lawfully within the U.S.— at least, that is the apparent motivation behind the law in Tennessee directly targeting Sharia, authored by a politician who supported the opposition to a local Islamic study center that eventually ended in arson). Second, they establish a precedent that reference to religious law has no place in a constitutionally-sound court system— or alternatively, anyone who is informed by their religious laws is unfit to serve in the courts.

Here's the first inconsistency of this: the same folks promoting the ouster of a Muslim judge for whom Sharia is an informing element in his worldview are those who claim that, unequivocally, the law of the land in the U.S. ought to be the biblical law. In other words, they are uncomfortable with anyone legislating from the courts, unless it happens to be a Christian who is exercising his Biblical Christian worldview. Now, I don't have a problem with Christian judges, politicians, and others living consistently in accordance with their biblical Christian world views; I'd like to hope that I am both a teacher and (sometimes) model of that, myself. But to say that Christians get to do this, but those of other faiths should be prohibited by law from doing so, is at least inconsistent with our Constitution. Whatever that is, it isn't the right to free exercise of religion.

But the second and more weighty inconsistency is this: in doing this, these Christians (and others, admittedly) have just laid the groundwork for the eventual marginalization and exile of Christians themselves from the courts and political system. If "foreign laws" include Sharia, which is derived from the Quran, then it is only a matter of time before they also include, by definition, the 10 Commandments or any other ethical structure based on the Bible. Let's not be naïve: many U.S. citizens— perhaps a small majority, or perhaps even more than that— are very uncomfortable with what they think of as the "typical evangelical": a Pat Robertson-supporting, homophobic, patriarchal, damnation-declaring, unthinking religious zealot. I'm not very comfortable with that being the default image in the average unbelieving American's mind, but it is probably more typical than not. Just how long will a majority that thinks like that stand for Christian judges exercising their Christian worldviews in the practice of their work?

Christians should be for the free exercise of religion for everyone, not just for Christians. We should love the Constitution of the U.S. that way. More importantly, we should love our neighbor that way.

Friday, August 5, 2011

For All the Saints endorsement/review

I had a chance to meet my fellow PCA pastor Ron Steel in the spring; we sat down together for breakfast in St. Louis. As we talked, it came up that I had written a few things, and he suddenly exclaimed, "I've read your book!"

As it turns out, a member of his congregation brought him a copy of my little book, For All the Saints: praying for the church sometime last year, and he had read it. I am honored that he followed that up with an e-mail that contained the following review/endorsement:

"Ed Eubanks is wise to tremble, as he says, at the prospect of writing a book on prayer, but I am glad that the women’s prayer ministry at his church in western Tennessee prevailed upon him to set aside his understandable timidity and write this practical little treatise on praying for the church. The topics covered in the space of just 88 pages range widely over a number of arenas needing focused intercession from “all the saints”. Prayer in behalf of Christ’s church is both our great privilege and the source of spiritual power in being and doing all that our Sovereign Lord has designed and destined the church to be and do. Some of these areas of focus in prayer include unity, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, church discipline and restoration, fellowship and growth, the lost, renewal and revival, suffering, church leadership and the return of Christ. The section at the end of each chapter called “prayer summary” is worth the price of the book. Together these sections compose an impressive prayer list for those committed to upholding their church in prayer. Few have been able to compose something on prayer that is sensitive to the theology of prayer while being intensely practical in providing specific guidance in what to pray. Many will find, as I have, this little book to be large in usefulness."
Ronald Steel
recently Senior Pastor of Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church, Ballwin, Missouri.

Thanks, Ron! I'm grateful for our acquaintance, and look forward to sharing more time with you in the future.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Generosity and temperance

Here's a great story of a generous kid whose fanaticism is well-tempered:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sermon Texts for August

  • Here are the texts for August's sermons, continuing in the book of Acts:
  • Acts 9:32-43 (Miracles Never Cease)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Books for July 2011

Healing For a Broken World: Christian Perspective on Public PolicyHealing For a Broken World: Christian Perspective on Public Policy by Steve Monsma

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally, a book that I can recommend to my congregation about public policy and how to consider their responsibilities in voting!

I’ve been frustrated with the lack of clear and constructive guidance on this topic for a long time. Many American Christians misunderstand what it means to vote in accordance with the principles of their/our faith, and too often this leads to an inappropriate over-alignment with particular political parties, movements, or other “camps.” Before I read this book, I was dismayed at what was available along the lines of good biblical instruction on how to view civil affairs.

My only strong concern here: this title will be somewhat dated in a few years; even then, however, the illustrative examples will stand as good historical case-studies.

Otherwise, I strongly commend it. The author is knowledgeable about the subject, and offers much first-hand experience. Yet, he takes pains to conceal his particular biases when matters are more ambiguous, and presents only the more concrete biblical views.

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting book; I read it because of the strong recommendation of someone whose opinion I trust, and also because I am familiar with some of the author’s other work. I definitely liked it, but also found it to be a little weird.

It’s a good story, and quite well-told. The writing is top-tier stuff, and it reads very easily. While the storyline jumps back and forth between two points in the narrator’s life, the author handles this ably and the reader (this reader, anyway) isn’t confused by the shifts or why they occur.

The story itself has some stranger elements to it, and a couple of implausible aspects that, while woven well into the narrative, reduced the quality of the story a bit for me. Still, it’s an honest and realistic tale for 98% of the book, and an engaging one.

Shoeless JoeShoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another good, yet strange, book.

Naturally, I’ve seen the movie (Field of Dreams) based on this book, so when my friend Lee mentioned that it was available for free through the Kindle Store, I gladly downloaded it. It seemed like a good one to tackle while working out on the stationary bike and/or treadmill. And it was.

The movie gave me the advantage of being familiar, at least loosely, with the story, and I was pleased to see that the movie re-told the story pretty closely (leaving out a few key parts, of course, but surprisingly little in my opinion). That made for a faster read, I suppose, which is good because there were points where the book dragged a bit. The author had a couple of tangents that seemed entirely superfluous to me; perhaps an absolute hardcore baseball fan (like Lee!) might get them, but some of them I’m not so sure about even then.

Still, it’s a good story, and a fun one. A nostalgic, baseball-loving version of the “stickin’ it to the man” thing, with a few twists.

One thing I really liked: Ray’s relationship with his wife, Annie (which is barely a “B” story, but is still a consistent thread through the book) is a great portrayal of a wife who is so devoted to her husband and loves him well, in spite of how bizarre or off-the-wall his dreams and ambitions seem to others.

One thing I didn’t: the reverence for baseball in this book, at times, approaches religious zeal— even asserting at one point that salvation is found in the idea of baseball! It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with religious zealotry in books, or even that I’m inherently troubled by misplaced religious fervor; neither of those are necessarily bad. But I guess the reverence for something as, well, untranscendent as baseball seems like a waste of religious energy to me. Don’t get me wrong— I love baseball, and I “get” the transcendence that the author was/is trying to portray about baseball: that it is one of the few consistent things through the last half of American history, that it is something that can connect fathers and sons when other things can’t, etc. But even in light of these, Kinsella’s take was too much, I thought.

But I liked the book, and the zealotry only showed up occasionally, and only one scene were it went over the top— so I would recommend it to anyone who likes baseball.

View all my reviews