Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Pax Americana


The Roman Empire had many means to spread its message. It was called the "Pax Romana," which means "Roman Peace." Of course, the only way to truly be at peace in the Roman Empire was to follow the way of Rome and not dissent ("When in Rome, do as the Romans do"... or else).

But one particularly clever way to spread it's message was through the imprinted icons on coins. Here's some information from the Wiki on Roman Currency:

Another role that coins played in Roman society, although secondary to their economic role within Roman commerce, was their ability to convey a meaning or relate an idea via their imagery and inscriptions.

The imagery on coins took an important step when Julius Caesar issued coins bearing his own portrait. While moneyers had earlier issued coins with portraits of ancestors, Caesar’s was the first Roman coinage to feature the portrait of a living individual.

The main focus of the imagery during the empire was on the portrait of the emperor. Coins were an important means of disseminating this image throughout the empire. Coins often attempted to make the emperor appear god-like through associating the emperor with attributes normally seen in divinities, or emphasizing the special relationship between the emperor and a particular deity by producing a preponderance of coins depicting that deity. During his campaign against Pompey, Caesar issued a variety of types that featured images of either Venus or Aeneas, attempting to associate himself with his divine ancestors.

An example of an emperor who went to an extreme in proclaiming divine status was Commodus. In 192, he issued a series of coins depicting his bust clad in a lion-skin (the usual depiction of Hercules) on the obverse, and an inscription proclaiming that he was the Roman incarnation of Hercules on the reverse. Although Commodus was excessive in his depiction of his image, this extreme case is indicative of the objective of many emperors in the exploitation of their portraits... During the late Republic there were often political messages to the imagery..."

These American commemorative coins do not feature a founding father or a current president, but they do feature America's god.

Friday, March 30, 2012

DIY Two-Person Swing

The other day I had a random urge to build something. Since my fiancé and I love spending time outside, I thought I'd make a two-person swing that we could enjoy together. It's super easy to make. Here's what you need:
  • (1) 2 x 8 x 10 cut in half (48 inches)
  • (2) U-Bolts
  • a power drill
  • sandpaper
(Click Photos to Enlarge)

Drill two holes for the U-Bolt and attach. (easy!)

Make sure that each end is the same depth to keep the swing even.

(on both ends)

Hang it in your backyard!

And customize. (I stained it and carved it)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blind Consumers and Brother Bartimaeus

This self-authored post originally appeared at

Historically, Apple has had an incredibly effective advertising campaign and the company’s latest commercial is no exception. The new ad showcases the iPad's new high-resolution retina display and, as per usual, Apple isn't just selling you their product. They’re selling you an experience. More specifically, in this ad they’re selling consumers a better experience with "the things you care about."

The ad is simultaneously brilliant and aggravating. On the surface it would seem that Apple just wants us to enjoy the things we care about. But Apple's slight of hand convinces us that we need the iPad to enjoy the things we care about. It is not "simply you and the things you care about." It is you and the iPad and the things you care about.

Apple portrays itself as innocent and caring. The ad is clean and white, with a bunch of colorful images of nature and human beings (even a subliminal message that the iPad will help you read to your children!). These are the things you care about and we want to help you enjoy them, implies the serene voiceover. But the blatant hypocrisy is that Apple's sole objective is to get between you and the things you care about. The screen is so clear that you won't notice that there’s an iPad between you and the things you care about.

And that’s really why I love/hate this commercial. I hate it because it skillfully portrays the iPad as something and nothing at the same time. It is an iPad, (something) but it easily dissolves into the fabric of our lives and becomes unseen (nothing). Like many of the things that get between you and the things you care about, the iPad is designed to become incognito.

Apple understands that life is really all about the things we care about. As a Christian, my relationship with the Triune God is at the top of the list. But it’s not the obvious things that get between me and God; it’s the things that remain unseen, dictating my behavior without me knowing. It’s those “high-resolution” habits that are so clear that we continually look (and live) through them without even knowing they’re there.

Over the past few years I’ve learned that just about anything can get in the way of my relationship with God and the people I care about. My reading habits, my ministry or even my theology itself can get between me and God. It’s always those things that have become incognito. They are something, as they influence us and get in the way of the things we care about. And they are nothing, as they remain unseen, hiding in our blind spots.

I wonder if that’s why the Gospels display Jesus healing so many people who are blind. Perhaps it’s not only to illustrate Jesus’ power in the Spirit and the presence of the reign of God, but to teach us to cry out, like blind Bartimaeus, “I want to see!” so that we too can rise and follow Him on the way.

Thomas Merton once wrote that our role as consumers depends on our belief in the product’s promises. I would agree. But I might add that our role as consumers depends on our passivity to let products dissolve into the fabric of our lives and become both something and nothing. Our role as disciples of Christ, however, depends on the exact opposite: to actively confess the things that get between us and God, and ask to receive our sight. Only then can it truly be “you and the things you care about.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is the Facebook Generation More Compassionate?

When I was in grade school, the last thing on my mind was diversity or multiculturalism. I was more concerned with winning the game of kickball at recess and then making sure that the girls knew about it. When I was in grade school words like "globalization" or "internet" hadn't even been written into our text books yet.

But today there seems to be a significant change in the way young people see the world. Over the last month I've been substitute teaching at a public school that I once attended and a lot has changed. I've spotted new additions to the building, new teachers, and new kind of trend: almost everywhere I turn there are posters, books, and curricula that emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, and compassion.

For example, I saw a poster in a 5th grade classroom that read:




Each other

Regardless of



Talents or


I was taken aback. I genuinely doubt that this poster would have been in a classroom in 1995. And then there was the 3rd grade test on a story titled, "Suki's Kimono." The story not only offers a look into Japanese culture but also emphasizes compassion and tolerance of diversity. The last question of the test: How do people sometimes act when they see someone who looks different? (One student's answer: "They act weird because they don't know them on the inside.")

Now, we might chalk these examples up to standard elementary school teachings on morality and social behavior. And that's certainly plausible. But it seems to me that there is a notable increase in the amount of teaching on these concepts, which makes sense since a lot has changed since when I was in grade school. The world today is flat, the internet has now evolved from information retrieval to collaborative exchange (otherwise known as Web 2.0), and kids today have far more opportunities to connect with this incredibly diverse world.

On the wall next to one 1st-grade classroom hangs a large Ugandan flag. This class has successfully partnered with Circle of Peace School across the Atlantic in Uganda by giving money through Givology, sharing digital video/audio, and writing letters. When I was in grade school we learned about Uganda through an encyclopedia. Today, kids talk to other kids in Uganda.

The world is changing so rapidly that kids today can't help but learn to be more accepting of diversity. Borders are thinning, social networks are growing, and new global paradigms are emerging.

It isn't just an elementary phenomenon. Just the other day in the local Hamburg newspaper an 11th grader from Immaculata Academy wrote an editorial titled, "Just Stop the Hate." Her essay reflected upon the recent suicide of a gay teenager in her school district. She urged fellow students to be more accepting and compassionate, writing ,"Love is love," and "Everyone has their right to opinions." And that's exactly what young people are being taught today by the likes of Lady Gaga or the new film project Bully (coming to theaters March 30th). Kids today see the world differently than their parents' generation. And I would argue that their paradigm is naturally more compassionate.

All of this has me wondering: Is humankind evolving toward increased compassion? As a follower of Christ, this is my hope. I believe that Jesus reveals what it means to be a human person (the "True Adam," so to speak). Humankind's ultimate goal, therefore, is to relate to one another in the manner of Christ. We're not there yet (obviously). But are we moving in that direction? I actually believe that we might be.

This hypothesis has some scientific (as well as sociological) merit. Evolutionary biologists are now arguing that nature evolves more strongly with cooperation than with competition. In a video series, Process Theologian Philip Clayton says, "It seems to me now that the pendulum has swung and we're beginning to see that this - what you see around us - is more a story of cooperation than it is of competition. Certainly for person's of faith, that's a welcome result; because it suggests... a nature which shows a kind of altruism; a sharing, a dividing, and a gaining from each other."

Is it possible that humankind is evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion? Well, if humanity bears the stamp of the God who is community, then this makes a whole lot of sense. The more that I observe trends in human psychology, global culture, and technology, the more I am inclined to believe that humankind is - or, at least, ought to be - evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion.

But then again, there is plenty of evidence for the contrary. There would be no anti-bullying movement if there were no bullies. It seems that kids today are just as mean as in previous generations. One might even argue that increased connectivity makes today's kids meaner (Increased connectivity means increased opportunities for harassment). And let's face it, Facebook isn't exactly grooming mini Christ's or Dalai Lamas. Moreover, trends in globalization and multiculturalism might simply be the reflection of international economies - competition and greed, not cooperation and altruism.

Yes, maybe all of this "evolving toward compassion" stuff is just a bunch of hype. In his weekly column for Time Magazine Joel Stein laments that Generation Y "can't be bothered to save the planet." Stein cites psychologist Jean Twenge (author of Generation Me) who published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which she reports that today's young people do less to help the environment than their parents did. Why? Because they (er, I mean, we) are lazier and more materialistic than previous generations! Thus, the Facebook generation may talk the talk, but we do not walk the walk. This, I believe, is due to the fact that our deepest issues are systemic; and few are willing to go there. Hence, capitalism will swallow up well-intended movements like the green movement - and actually destroy the environment in the process. Compassion cannot ignore the systemic. My friend and pastor Bruce McKay once said, "Having compassion for someone without considering the system that makes them an object of compassion is not compassion but sympathy." Generation Y's inability to confront the system results in much of what we see today: a faux green movement and "Occupy" t-shirts.

None of this does any good for my hypothesis or my hope in a more compassionate world.

The truth, I believe, is that we are evolving toward greater cooperation and compassion; but that evolution includes the possibility of compassion's polar opposite: bullying, oppression, injustice. In this case, the Facebook generation - and every subsequent generation - is the generation with the most potential for compassion, justice, and global good. At the same time, they (we) have the greatest potential for the opposite.

If our potential for increased cooperation and compassion is true, if it is a realistic hope, then why not tack up a poster about the value of diversity? Why not read a book about compassion to a 3rd grader? Why not speak up for the youth who are trying to make the world a better place? And why not join them? After all, we know what bullying, injustice and oppression look like; we've been there before. I'm on the team that's going to dream for where we haven't yet been. I'm on the team that says we're evolving toward a global community of cooperation and compassion. Not just because I'm convinced that we're evolving there, but because I want to see what it looks like.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Getting Symbols Right

"The incarnate hope of Christian belief must take care that its symbols are not used as idols and fetishes out of fear of suffering and refusal of the cross." - Jurgen Moltmann

Friday, March 23, 2012

What the Hellbound!? A New Documentary Coming September 2012

Hellbound? Teaser Trailer 1080 from Darren Hull Studios Inc. on Vimeo.

In light of this new documentary I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the topic. The following is an adaptation of part of a paper that I composed on Evangelism and Soteriology. This portion of the paper briefly touches on hell.

Christian evangelism has no place for the desire of hell. “As soon as we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell we find ourselves in great danger,” writes New Testament scholar Tom Wright.[1] Exclusivist soteriology (i.e. the belief that ‘non-believers’ go to hell) has yielded many Christians who resemble the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.[2] At the very least, shouldn’t Christians hope that all persons will be saved by God? (This is also known as "Arminian Universalism")[3]

People often argue that we need hell in order to talk about sin and grace. Do we? Historically speaking, the concepts of sin and grace predate the concept of hell by a long shot. That alone suggests that God’s love and grace are discernable without hell (as in Judaism). To me it makes more sense to appropriate sin and grace in light of God’s love and the reign of God. This approach allows us to speak of sin as an issue that matters here and now, not just then and there (i.e. after death). Like Jesus, we may use this-world realities to elucidate the seriousness of sin. For example, as Jesus compared the road of sin to Gehenna[4] (a burning pile of human waste[5]) so too may we speak prophetically against the sinful realities in our world. What is sin? Sin is human trafficking. What is hell? Not a fiery furnace below the earth. Hell is Auschwitz. Hell is starving children in a world of abundant resources. Appropriating sin in this way not only befits the larger system of Christian theology, but also places more weight onto the doctrine of sin by making it a matter of urgent, present concern.

No one seemed to take this more seriously than Jesus himself. The Gospels portray Jesus speaking of sin and hell quite often. But I’m not convinced that Jesus’ use of hell is the same as what we mean today. The seemingly explicit teachings of Jesus on hell must be interpreted in their original context (rather than using modern meanings).[6] It can be argued from those contexts that Jesus makes use of Gehenna as a culturally derived rhetorical device. More specifically, Jesus’ stern warnings contrast his inclusive soteriology with that of the religious guardians, for whom the earliest form of Exclusivism had become ‘orthodoxy’:

“It is reasonable to conclude that the system of belief identified in the previous chapter as ‘individual post-mortem compensation’, with its key elements of ‘the world to come’, ‘reward and punishment’, ‘Gehenna and Gan Eden’ and ‘judgment’, did stem from the Pharisees. …The expectation of individual post-mortem compensation had become so established in the thought of the Pharisees that it had transformed their understanding of salvation,” [7]

Jesus’ usage of hell suggests both a present and future state, so we need to take seriously that hell is not simply a post-mortem issue. Perhaps hell is as present today as it was for Jesus in the First Century. I suggest that we can use the language of hell to describe horrors such as human trafficking. However, present hell screams out for justice (cf. Gen. 4:10) and thereby divulges its transience. This ought to give us pause when considering the idea that hell is everlasting. As a future state, we must confess our profound lack of certitude and hold our views with humility. Nobody (that I know) has ever returned from hell to give a report.

Like all New Testament theology, the concept of hell must be interpreted in light of Old Testament theology. The Hebrew Scriptures largely remain silent on ideas of post-mortem punishment.[8] Moreover, Old Testament notions of judgment, from which Jesus drew his teaching,[9] contain no hints of the unending punishment that we find in modern views of hell.[10] Instead, judgment in the Old Testament – even God’s “eternal fire” (Jer. 17:4) – is not the final word but a means to reconciliation with God (cf. Jer. 31:38-40).[11] There is substantial grounds for arguing that God’s judgment is itself salvific.[12] This does not, however, mean that biblical teaching on hell may be glossed over as a “means to reconciliation.” Paul makes clear that all will be judged (Rom. 14:10-12, 2 Cor. 5:10) and that the man whose work is burned up “will suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:10-15). Yet, Paul also claims that those who suffer loss “will be saved, but only as through fire.” Here, as in the Old Testament, hell may be a terrible – yet purposeful – experience that God uses to achieve God’s one, true purpose: the salvation of all.

[1] N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 92, italics added.

[2] Lk 15:11-32, esp. 25-32. cf. Matt. 20:1-16.

[3] See Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, ed. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), xvi.

[4] Matt. 5:21-26, 27-30; 10:28; 23:15,33; Mk 9:42-50. ‘Gehenna’ is nowhere found in the Hebrew Bible but may be found in the Pseudopigrapha, Palestinian Targums, and New Testament. The term came to indicate a place of punishment or punishment itself. However, the ambiguity of the term allowed for many different interpretations. See David J. Powys,‘Hell’: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, Carlisle, Cumbria, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 1997. (1997), 177-194.

[5] “During intertestamental times [Gehenna (Greek), or the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew)] became the garbage and sewage dump of Jerusalem and a symbol of the place of punishment (1 Enoch 27:3; 4 Ezra 7:36) because worms and fires were always consuming the refuse,” James A. Brooks, Mark: The New American Commentary. vol. 23 (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1991), 153.

[6] Matt. 5:21-26, 27-30; 10:28; 23:15,33; Mk 9:42-50.

[7] David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question (1997), 216.

[8] See Jan Bonda The One Purpose of God (1993), ch. VII and Powys (1997) sec. II.

[9] e.g. Mark 9:43-48 draws from Isa. 66:24. Matt. 25:46 from Dan. 12:2.

[10] Many conventional interpretations are anachronistic in their import of modern definitions of “eternal” for the Hebrew “‘olam”, which is translated “forever” and “everlasting” but did not carry the same meaning in Hebrew. See Bonda (1993), 63-73, 211-219.

[11] cf. Bonda (1993), VII.3

[12] Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-11, 18-20, 31-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 11:1-3; 14:4-9; Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:10-15. (See Bonda [1993], 196-219 for discussion on salvific judgment. cf. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963], 398-399.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


moss on tree.

after the spring rain.




after the rainfall.

spring rain.

blooming air orchid.

my new friend, roger.

roger's house.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Ask, Don't Tell vs. Don't Judge, Don't Preach

I was having lunch in Toronto with a friend of mine recently when we began talking about all of those topics that you're not supposed to talk about in the church. Drinking, swearing, and sexual orientation were at the center of our conversation. We both agreed that there is a kind of universal "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the church when it comes to such matters. It seems that Christians would rather mind their own business than actually engage with those who might live and believe differently. Kind of strikes me as a form of xenophobia. And I think it's a real problem in Christian culture.

First, the problem with "Don't ask." Not asking means not knowing. Not knowing means not caring. And soon enough we have a bunch of people who don't really care about one another because they haven't bothered to ask questions to people who are different. Instead, people hold surface level conversations about ubiquitous topics rather than going deeper into the complexities and mysteries of life. Differences are a good thing and the church needs to embrace diversity within the unity of Christ. Interestingly, not asking is, in many ways, just a silent way of judging. By not asking, we presume to know someone else - and therefore are not worth talking to.

Second, the problem with "Don't tell." When church culture cultivates a moratorium on sharing, then people are stifled. Our identities are suffocated. We can't share what makes us who we are. As I wrote in a post long ago, the beliefs we hold are near and dear to us, the church needs to be a place where people do tell. A culture of not sharing only promotes hidden secrets, shame, and more judgment due to lack of understanding.

Perhaps the church needs to replace "Don't ask, Don't tell" with "Don't judge, Don't preach." Here are some advantages.

"Don't judge" means that we ought to authentically inquire and go deeper into the mysteries of God and life with others. Without asking questions we do not grow. And we need one another to learn (otherwise God wouldn't have created community at the center of everything). But this needs to happen without judgment. We can never see the world exactly the same as someone else because we all have unique experiences according to our situatedness. Asking is the means to knowing and knowing the means to building relationship. If we ask without judgment, we are afforded better relationship through inquiry.

"Don't preach" simply means to share without an agenda. Do tell, but don't tell in order to convert others to your own opinion (at least not aggressively or coercively. Wanting others to share your opinion is OK in my opinion). This ultimately liberates us to share without fear or shame. We are free to share simply because what we share is authentically ours to share. We share a piece of ourselves because, once again, through sharing we move closer together and build relationship.

Church ethos needs to move away from this simple and anti-relational "Don't ask, Don't tell." We need a community building "Ask! But don't judge. Tell! But don't preach." What do you think?

Friday, March 16, 2012

TIME Gives Props to the Emerging Church

It doesn't take a genius to note that less and less people are associating themselves with organized religion. Put another way, more and more people are identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation at all. This is what TIME recently called, "The Rise of the Nones" (punny, right?) in their March 12 issue on 10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life. In the article Amy Sullivan reports: "The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called 'the nones' by social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990..."

While critics of religion love to interpret such trends as the death rattle of religion, (I would caution such analysts to ponder the irony of pronouncing the death of a religion whose God dies) there is more evidence to support that the rise of the "nones" is not a death, but an evolution in faith and spirituality. "Many of those who have given up on organized religion have not given up on faith," says Sullivan. Although the "nones" are increasing, statistics for agnostics and atheists remain low, at about 4%. What we have are a lot of people who still believe in a god of sorts, but can't find a safe, flexible place to explore and live out their faith.

Nevertheless, people are responding to and evolving with these trends. One of the key Christian movements is the Emerging Church movement: "The U.S. has a long tradition of producing spiritual innovators and entrepreneurs. Today they're the organizers of the emergent-church movement, an effort by younger Christian leaders (there's a similar movement among Jews) to take religion away from musty pews and fierce theological fights by creating small worship communities that often meet in member's homes," writes Sullivan.

The Emerging Church movement is difficult to define and I'll make no attempt to elaborate in this post (I've included some links at the end of this post). It's simply encouraging to see TIME acknowledge a serious trend in American religious life, as well as the important response movements that are taking place. Sullivan concludes her article with a quote from Erin Dunigan, a pastor of "Not Church" in La Mision, Mexico. Dunigan says, "It allows the folks that I spend time with to say, 'If organized religion is willing to try something new, maybe I should give organized religion a chance.' "


The nine core practices of the Emerging Church:
  1. Identifying with Jesus (and his way of life through incarnational living)
  2. Transforming secular space (overcoming the secular/sacred split)
  3. Living as community (not merely as strangers in proximity at a church service)
  4. Welcoming the stranger (radical and genuine hospitality that is inclusive)
  5. Serving with generosity (not merely serving the institution called "church," but people)
  6. Participating as producers (not as widgets in the church program)
  7. Creating as created beings (releasing God’s creativity inherent in each one)
  8. Leading as a body (beyond control and the CEO model of leadership)
  9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities (recognizing and celebrating the contribution of 2000 years of Christianity).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lady Gaga... Liberation Theologian?

In the March 12 issue of TIME, pop icon Lady Gaga was featured in the "10 Questions" portion of the magazine. Interestingly, the interview focused less on her work as a musical artist and more on her efforts to put an end to bullying.

What fascinated me about the interview was Lady Gaga's response to the first two questions:
You just launched the Born This Way Foundation. Is it aimed at preventing bullying?
This is not an antibullying foundation. This is a youth-empowerment foundation. This is about combatting meanness and cruelty. This is about inspiring bravery in young people and their parents and culture worldwide to work toward a kinder and more accepting society.

Isn't inspiring kindness the same thing as combatting bullying?
We do not make a distinction between the bully and the victim. Each person is an equally important and valuable member of society. What the foundation is about is a transformative change that is going to take a long time to affect the overall culture. Bullies were born this way too.
A line in each answer reveals something most interesting and exciting. First, Gaga claims that her foundation is not against bullies, but rather for kindness. It is not about labeling people good or bad, but claiming good and bad behavior, which can be enacted by all. Second, Gaga explicitly states that she does "not make a distinction between the bully and the victim. Each person is equally important..."

Gaga's principles resonate extremely well with the movement of Liberation Theology. While vacuous attacks have painted Liberation Theology as a mere social agenda, it is not. Liberation Theology is fundamentally about oppression amongst all races, classes, and genders. Both Gaga and Liberation Theologians recognize that both the oppressed and oppressors are caught in a dynamic of violence; and both are in need of liberation.

Though he may not be considered a liberation theologian, the Brazillian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire has contributed much to the liberation movement. His major work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, offers insights the dynamic between oppressors and the oppressed. Here are a few that my friend Stephen pointed out to me:

Dehumanization is the fundamental characteristic of the oppressed-oppressor dichotomy, liberation is the restoration/creation of the humanity of both.

In order for there to be true liberation, the oppressed must not turn around and become the oppressors: In order for the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors to have meaning, “the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both” (44)

Kind of sounds like Lady Gaga, doesn't it?