26 November 2015

A Good Night for a Bad Movie

This week Sunday Assembly NYC teamed up with Center for Inquiry NYC for our first-ever Bad Movie Night. It was a chilly New York City night, and perhaps that and proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday kept people away. Of 34 RSVPs we had 10, which wasn't quite what we were aiming for, but still not terrible.

What was awesomely bad was the movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. While this film wasn't considered bad when it came out, it certainly hasn't aged well. At the time it hit theaters, in 1964, no probe had year reached Mars. All we had were observations though telescopes. The protagonist (and his monkey) had to confront 'flame swamps,' reduced oxygen and potential dehydration. Not bad compared to what Mark Watney had to deal with in The Martian.

The special effects were lacking, the human-looking aliens in ships that flew herky-jerkey and used slaves to mine the planet didn't make a great deal of sense, and there were some incredible inconsistencies. All in all, a perfect movie to kick off Bad Movie Night in NYC.

The venue before people starting showing up. Plenty of room!
Stone Creek Bar & Lounge was the perfect venue for this sort of event. A private back room with 90 inch projector screen and great sound was all ours for the evening. The food was great and there was a decent selection of beers. I just feel bad about not getting the 15-20 attendees we'd been expecting, as a minimum. Chalk that up as a leasson learned, as only one person out of nearly 30 who RSVPed through Eventbrite actually showed up.
Great Screen!

We're going to meet up again in January, with date, location and title all TBD. If you'd like to suggest a film, join us on the Sunday Assembly Facebook group to discuss it. Be sure to sign up on our Meetup page to stay informed on this and all our other events.

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25 November 2015

Bread Communion at The Unitarian Church in Summit

There will come a Sunday, perhaps in the near future, that I attend The Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ and don't blog about it later that week. However, that week is not this week. Once again, my son and I attended and I feel the need to blog.

Served by Rev. Terry Sweetser, interim minister, and Rev. Emilie Boggis, minister of Congregational Life, as well as a dedicated staff and a number of lay volunteers, the Summit UU church provides a friendly, welcoming environment for people to come together and reflect on what matters in life. Leadership and the church community together are what make this congregation a great place to visit. There's a welcome table for newcomers right at the door, a smile on most faces and plenty of seating. My son and I have taken to sitting in the balcony, next to the organ (which is apparently not used often, if at all).
We've only attended a few services so far, but each one is in some way unique enough to be interesting, and yet routine enough to feel familiar. This past Sunday they set a table and had what they called 'Bread Communion,' which tied into their theme of thanksgiving for the service. There was a ceremony involving members of the church placing items on the table and then explaining their significance, including the tablecloth, a cornucopia, and wine, among others. This was capped off with the flaming chalice which, as in most UU churches, is lighted near the beginning of the service. After the table was set, members of the congregation brought different types of bread reflecting the diverse cultures of the world. With explanations and some ceremony, these were mixed in a basket, redistributed to smaller baskets, and passed around to members. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Lord's Supper, though without any of the symbolic significance usually tied to that ceremony.
Aside from a vague reference in a hymn to the source of life, and prayer-like activities addressed to 'the spirit of life,' there is very little theism in the services I've seen at this church. The 'woo factor' is also relatively low, with some ritual and meditative practices included, minus overt invocation of the supernatural. Many die-hard Humanists would be put off even by this, while dedicated Christians could find it all rather bland or even pointless. For someone like me, though, it's a pretty good fit.

There will likely soon come a time when only special events at Summit UU will merit a blog post. That will happen either because I've become a part of that community, or else only attend for special events. We'll see which way the story goes.

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24 November 2015

Lawrence Krauss and Robert Wright on Physics, Philosophy, and 'New Atheism’

Last week what was easily the most contentious of the 'Contentions' series took place at Union Theological Seminary. Robert Wright has been bringing in secular speakers to discuss fairly weighty issues, and last night it was time to hear from Lawrence Krauss. For most of the evening, that's all we did: Hear from Lawrence Krauss.

It was nearly impossible for Wright to get a word in edgewise, and every time he began to speak, Krauss interrupted. Afterwards someone told me he did that because he was defending his name and disputing false characterizations (he especially didn't like being referred to as a 'New Atheist'). I'm not sure that was the reason, though, as Krauss constantly interrupted audience members asking fairly innocent questions during Q & A at the end.

Krauss is indisputably a brilliant scientist, and hearing him discuss physics was a real pleasure. Less enjoyable was his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to every field of human reflection and endeavor that does not satisfy him, such as philosophy but especially theology.

This series is incredibly worthwhile, and I'm glad to be able to promote it through our Sunday Assembly community in New York. The next edition of the series takes place on December 8, and it entitled 'Francis Fukuyama and Robert Wright Consider: Where is History Heading?'

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23 November 2015

Pub Theology: The First Preacher

What was a Humanist doing at a Pub Theology meetup? Well, discussing theology and drinking beer, for starters. I'd heard of Pub Theology for some years, as an informal way for people to discuss religion and spirituality in a non-threatening environment (some people, even many who consider themselves Christians, are really turned off by churches). As a Humanist, though, what could possibly interest me in this type of gathering?

It was, in fact, a comination of recent experiences that brought me around to the idea of participating. The two most noteworthy were visiting St. Lydia's and reading Tripp Fuller's new book on Jesus. At St. Lydia's I felt an unqualified welcome despite the fact that it's a Lutheran church. I didn't need to say under my breath that I'm non-theistic, and at no time did anyone attempt to evangelize me. As for Tripp Fuller's book, it was reading his comment that if the Gospel of Mark could be included in the canon, many of his skeptical friends should be welcomed in the church. Those factors, along with my academic training (BMin) and continued interest in some aspects of biblical theology, drew me in.

Oddly, I was apparently the only one to bring a Bible to the meetup. At one point a question came up and I, hesitantly, pulled out my trusty NRSV (with Apocrypha). The meetup itself followed along readings included in a handout. Some of the readings were from the Bible, and others were contemporary commentary.

This was not an in-depth study, by any means. Pub Theology, at least as presented by Jim Kast-Keat on behalf of Middle Collegiate Church, is a mildly boozy, friendly, structured chat about Christian beliefs. There was no deep-dive into historical, cultural or even textual context. The real focus seemed to be on people's experiences with the topic in question, and how they felt about it. On this evening in particular the topic could be boiled down to 'women in ministry', with 'The First Preacher' referring to Mary Magdalene being first to see the resurrected Jesus and then going to tell others about it.

Frankly, it surprises me that this is still an issue in progressive Christian churches. When I left the Catholic Church and joined a Presbyterian parish at 17, I had no problem with women in ministerial roles. That was in 1993. Later I took a strictly complementarian role and held on to it for well over a decade, despite some underlying discomfort with the doctrine.

This brings me to the part that makes me wonder the most about progressive Christian beliefs. They have the canon of Scripture, consisting of the same 66 biblical books that all Protestants and Catholics accept (the latter with several additional texts in their canon), yet don't seem to hold it all equally. Of course, no Christians hold all parts of their Bible in equal regard. The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, of which I was a part, makes a strict distinction between Old and New Testaments, favoring the latter as 'in effect' for our age. Fundamentalists who quote Old Testament against homosexuality conveniently ignore prohibitions on garments made of mixed types of fabrics. Matthew 25:31-46 is profoundly unsettling for faith-only evangelicals (I know, based on feedback I've received after preaching on it). Christians in general prefer to look the other way on YHWH's promotion of genocide and rape in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Still, picking and choosing which passages are acceptable and continuing to consider oneself 'Christian' feels terribly convenient. It seems to confirm the longstanding criticism leveled by atheists at believers that their religion will always conform to whatever views become embraced by the majority, adapting and surviving in a new form. When I was Roman Catholic a parish priest where I attended often spoke against this approach as 'smorgasbord Christianity.'

Having said all that, let me backtrack a bit and be a bit less critical. Progressive Christians would likely argue that Jesus of Nazareth is the true 'Word of God,' and the Bible simply points to him. They accept the 66+ books as canonical, but are 'accurate' only insofar as they faithfully testify to and promote the love of God revealed in Christ. Even those Christians who are non-theistic, either overtly as atheists or more discretely in holding to god-language in a metaphorical sense, see value in the Bible as a shared narrative. The stories told and lessons passed along provide a core resource and common language for people to gather around. Even as they wrestle with the text, they are interacting with it and with one another.

Groups like Sunday Assembly, Ethical Culture, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Oasis do not have anything like the Bible, leaving them without a compelling shared story. Then again, all of these groups have their own organizational history as well as human and cosmic history to discuss and reflect upon. Not having it all within a single book poses a challenge, but I'd say it's better to have evidence-based information to work with than creative fictions. Perhaps we simply need better storytellers to work with the source material.

It was great seeing Rev. Emily Scott from St Lydia's there, sharing about her experience as a woman in ministry. Rev. Adriene Thorne from Middle Collegiate Church was also there to do the same, and both had a lot to contribute to the discussion. Most fun was watching them play 'My Friend You See, I Disagree' at the end, and Rev. Thorne was wise to prefer taking the contrarian positions (hilarious). Jim did very well as host and discussion leader, despite being a bit frazzled that we weren't able to use the usual space.

Ah, and that brings me to Jimmy's No. 43. I've been to this bar before, for The Greenwich Series. I was unimpressed with the venue for that event, and attending this event there confirmed those negative impressions. The service is terribly slow. The place smells bad and the stink got into my clothing and skin. For Pub Theology, the worst part was getting to the bar to find that the back room where the group usually meets was given to another event, with no prior notice. We were put in a noisy side room right next to a speaker playing what sounded like side B tunes from some folksy 70s album. We crowded around a table on stools, and were prevented from bringing in more stools from the bar area to seat latecomers.

Despite it all, I actually look forward to the next Pub Theology meetup. It will take place on December 15 and is themed 'Queering Christmas.' Jes Kast-Keat and John Russell Stanger will be guests for that gathering.

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22 November 2015

Father's Son: A Faith Journey (Book One)

Over a decade ago I wrote a simple work of fiction, set in the late 1990's, about a young man’s spiritual life. It is written in his voice, and his experiences have only a little in common with my own. To write it I drew on my familiarity with my native Missouri and also knowledge of different Christian denominations.

There are a few stylistic changes that I could make, but I won’t. I’d rather leave it standing as it is. It is an intensely religious story that may be off-putting to many. At the same time, reading it now with fresh eyes and a bit of distance in time, I feel as though the narrative moves along quickly and in a fairly engaging fashion.

As for a second book…I really don’t know. A "Book Two" written by my hand now would be far different from something I would have penned 10 years ago. It might seem as though a different author were involved.

There are a few options for reading this book. A table of contents is below, with links leading out to the blog where the chapters were published. Alternatively, you can download the ebook version in .mobi or .epub format.

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

20 November 2015

The Great Divorce (Theatre Review)

Several years ago, at one of a few low points of my life, I was interviewing for a job in Paramus, NJ. I was very early for my interview, so I went to kill some time at a local mall. In a small bookstore there I came across C.S. Lewis' 'The Great Divorce.' Between that sitting and another time for a return interview, I read the short book through. It impacted me profoundly. I was impressed both with Lewis' keen insight into the human condition, as well as his hopeful view regarding the afterlife. In his theology, there was room for thinking of hell as locked 'from the inside.'

Fast forward to this year, 2015, when I saw an ad online for an off Broadway adaptation of 'The Great Divorce' to be performed in New York, at The Pearl Theatre. The Fellowship for Performing Arts, a Christian theatre group, put this show together. This isn't the first year it's run, by any means, but my wife and I were pleased to be there on this year's opening night.

'The Great Divorce' isn't a musical, and there were no splashy special effects, or wire flying. What was provided was amazing acting, with powerful delivery of lines. It was all the more incredible that only 3 people formed the cast, two of whom played several roles through the night with only modest wardrobe changes. They were so effective that it was no struggle to follow as they switched between characters, changing not only their costumes but also their accents and mannerisms to fit the new role.

This switching did become a bit confusing at one point, when the actor playing C.S. Lewis seemingly switched to another character, one burdened by some secret sin (addiction? homosexuality?). It is still unclear to me whether this was meant to be Lewis or not, but I seem to remember from the book it being a different person. Another point that could be confusing to the average person, unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis' life, was the importance of George MacDonald in the allegory. For that, see what I posted several years ago.

In general, the show was very faithful to Lewis' book, conveying the theological angle without evident modification and removing only portions of the text that were truly superfluous for understanding the message. Although I no longer share the general outlook conveyed by C.S. Lewis, I still very much enjoyed the show, as did my wife. Despite this being a show presented by a theatre group with a Christian perspective, there was no hard sell or altar call to bring people to Christ. In other words, it doesn't get weird.

It was great to get out with my lovely wife and see the depiction of a story that we could both enjoy, and one that moved me earlier in life. I ended up getting that job all those years ago, something that marked a turning point in my life and which brought me several steps closer to where I am today. Seeing 'The Great Divorce' helped me not only reflect on the influences at work in my life, but also positively on the path my life has taken.
CS Lewis on Stage: The Great Divorce Story Synopsis from Fellowship for Performing Arts on Vimeo.

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