Homer The Heretic?

"What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!" - Homer Simpson.

"The Simpsons" movie which opened on July 27, 2007 was reviewed by CNN which stated:

After 18 years and 400 episodes of a show that refuses to grow old, "The Simpsons" finally graduates to a movie theater near you. It doesn't take Homer long (about two minutes) to ask the obvious question: What kind of sucker pays for something he can watch at home for free?

Things start off with Grampa Abraham Simpson getting a divine revelation, a message from God right in the midst of Holy Communion ("Terrible things are going to happen ...") This warning seems to refer to an impending environmental catastrophe and/or Homer pigging out with his new pet porker. Either way, it goes unheeded by the nominal head of the family, whose concern for the earth's resources rarely extends beyond his next doughnut. When it comes time to dispose of his pig's waste, Homer takes it over to Lake Springfield.

The Gospel According To The Simpsons by Mark Pinsky is a very successful book that has been used by some Protestant churches in youth classes to explore the ways that religious themes are handled in the TV series. Publishers Weekly in its review of this book stated:

"Religion journalist Pinsky offers a thoughtful and genuinely entertaining review of faith and morality as reflected through the irreverently sweet comedy of The Simpsons. No less remarkable is the show's attention to religious themes especially considering the prevalent invisibility or irrelevance of religion on TV. As the program and its characters have matured, many viewers have seen a fundamental affirmation of spirituality, family and community life that emerges in spite of the sarcasm and exaggerated situations. Chapters are devoted to important characters Homer, Lisa, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Krusty and Apu and the faiths they represent, as well as to issues such as images of God, the Bible, prayer and ethics. The abiding charm of the show is how often its caricatures are devastatingly on-target and point to a deeper truth, as Tony Campolo points out in an excellent foreword: "Do not go too hard on Homer Simpson because more people in our churches are where he is than any of us in the mainline denominations want to acknowledge."

Booklist in its review wrote: "The Simpsons, after all, spend more time in church than any other TV family, though Homer can still only describe his religion as, "you know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity." Pinsky makes a compelling argument that the show's writers' view of religious expression is complicated and sympathetic, despite the lampooning of fundamentalist Ned Flanders and Springfield's apathy toward Lisa's Jesus-like social activism."

Homer Simpson - Saint or Sinner?

Posted July 28, 2007

The End Is Here?

"My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price. I understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death - we're all frightened of it." - J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter Books.

Lisa Jackson writing in Christian Parenting Today discusses the pros and cons of the Harry Potter books from the perspective of a Christian parent. She writes:

"You've undoubtedly heard of Harry Potter: loyal friend, expert athlete, boy wizard. For today's young readers, Harry Potter has become something of a hero, with enough charisma to force even a nonreader to turn off the TV or put down the joystick and open a book. But even though the Potter craze has turned thousands of television junkies into readers, for some Christian parents, Harry's no hero. In fact, some even claim he's "pure evil" and have called for a ban on all Harry Potter books in their schools and libraries.

Who is Harry Potter?
We first meet Harry in The Sorcerer's Stone. He's a 10-year-old orphan living with relatives who despise him. It's not until his 11th birthday that Harry learns he has magical abilities and a rather interesting past. When he was only a baby, his parents were both killed while trying to fight the most evil wizard on earth, Lord Voldemort. Miraculously, Baby Harry escaped the wicked wizard with only a lightning bolt scar on his forehead and little memory of the incident.

As a wizard, Harry is invited to enroll at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It's here that Harry realizes the significance of his past. Hogwarts is an enchanted place, invisible to Muggles (nonmagical people). Hogwarts offers classes like broomstick riding and care of magical creatures. During his first year at Hogwarts, Harry begins to develop his skills and comprehend the depth of his talent. He quickly becomes a top player of Quidditch, a game similar to soccer but played on flying broomsticks. But Harry learns more than just the mechanics of wizardry at Hogwarts. Beyond the spells and potions, Hogwarts is a place for students to learn the importance of friendship, honesty and loyalty. Here, Harry gains self-confidence as he learns to think for himself and make important decisions. He battles the class bully and eventually comes face to face with his archenemy Voldemort. In the end, with sizeable strength and courage, Harry prevails. The next three books in the series, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and The Goblet of Fire take Harry on new, sometimes frightening adventures, and we are allowed a glimpse into the inner struggles he must go through to develop into a mature young man.

What's to love about Harry?
Not only are the Harry Potter books creative, insightful and well-written, they're downright funny. From portraits of people who talk and often leave their picture to wander around, to candy that tastes like earwax, to staircases that lead to different destinations on Fridays, Rowling's imagery ignites the imagination. For a generation raised on computers and quick-moving animation, Harry Potter provides creative fuel for growing minds.
Although the books aren't Christ-centered and don't promote Christianity, they still offer powerful lessons in compassion, courage, self-sacrifice and doing the right thing despite the risks. The characters are very real, experiencing real emotions and forming meaningful relationships with one another.

What's wrong with Harry Potter?
Although many educators and parents have praised the series, some Christians are still wary, claiming that children are being lured into believing in witchcraft and the occult. "They're trying to disguise things as fun and easy that are really evil," Elizabeth Mounce told school board members in Columbia, South Carolina. Mounce, the mother of two, was the first to speak out publicly against the Harry Potter books. And she's not alone. A quick search of the Focus on the Family Web site yields a host of objections and arguments against Rowling's work. The primary concern is that Harry Potter is marketed to children and presents witchcraft as something attractive. Critics are fearful of the kind of influence the books might have on impressionable minds. "By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as good and healthy," says John Andrew Murray in a recent issue of Teachers in Focus magazine. "This, in turn, opens the door for less discerning individuals to become confused about supernatural matters."

These are legitimate concerns. The Bible clearly condemns witchcraft and tells Christians to "avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:22). But for the most part, Christian experts agree that the world of wizards and spells created by Rowling is not the same as the occult-type practices Scripture condemns. "The magic in these books is purely mechanical," says Charles Colson, Christianity Today magazine columnist and head of Breakpoint ministries. "Harry and his friends don't make contact with the supernatural world." The magic serves as a framework for the story, a technique used by writers as far back as Shakespeare, Tolkien and de Troyes (the creator of the King Arthur tales).

According to Italian theologian Massimo Intovigne, "Magic is the main metaphor for life in fairy tales. If one should ban Harry Potter, one should also ban Peter Pan, Cinderella and Pinocchio. Harry Potter, unlike a number of cartoon superheroes, doesn't win because he's more proficient at magic than the bad guys. He wins because he's intelligent and brave, and more human than his opponents. What the bad guys utterly lack is human feelings and basic human values." Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at Wheaton College in Illinois, even goes so far as to defend the Potter series as "a kind of spiritual warfare." "Harry Potter offers the possibility for serious moral reflection," he says. "And the question of what to do with magic powers is explored in an appropriate and morally serious way."

As with much of classic children's literature, the world of Harry Potter is a world where good and evil coexist in constant tension. There's little doubt that Harry remains on the side of right, battling the dark forces of evil. Children know that Harry is the good guy in these stories and can be confident that right will prevail in the end.

Where to be careful?
As Christian parents, it's important to be aware of the things our kids are reading, watching and listening to. The best way to determine if Harry Potter is right for your family is to read the books for yourself. Then filter their content through your own family's value system. Modern witchcraft is indeed a scary, seductive force that we must protect our children from. These books can provide a great starting point for talking to your kids about the evils of this world. Parents who decide to read the Potter books with their children should also point out ways in which the power Harry uses to defeat evil is much different from the power we have in God. "It bothers me that so much emphasis is on Harry's inner strength, his own abilities," says Sue Kramer, mother of three. "I want my kids to realize that our power comes from God, not ourselves. We read these books together and talked about how Harry might have behaved differently if he was a Christian. I think it was a good talk."

Although the Potter books are morally based, they don't always present black and white answers to life's difficult questions. Al Hsu, who's written extensively about Harry Potter for InterVarsity Press, says the books are "sometimes morally ambiguous. Though the mythology sets up the conflict between good and evil, it can be difficult to determine who is on which side." But viewed another way, says Hsu, this moral ambiguity actually strengthens the series, making it more real. As with every decision you'll face as a parent, the Harry Potter question really comes down to this: what's best for your child? You know your child better than anyone else and only you can predict how he'll be affected by these books. Whether you choose to say no to the books or read them aloud before bedtime, it's important that you make your decision based on facts, not fear."

The London Times of July 20, 2007 quoted a reviewer of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows who wrote: "Book seven is about coming to terms with death. From Plato to Descartes, our greatest thinkers have struggled with mortality and in crafting her own answer, Rowling heavily borrows from a Christian notion of resurrection and the wisdom of accepting our own inevitable disintegration and decay."

Harry Potter - good or evil?

Posted July 21, 2007

Fathers With Wisdom?

"The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother" - Father Theodore Hesburgh, longtime president of the University of Notre Dame.

Last Father’s Day my son gave me a gift of Tim Russert’s book Wisdom of Our Fathers the content of which as described by the publisher reads:

What does it really mean to be a good father? What did your father tell you, that has stayed with you throughout your life? Was there a lesson from him, a story, or a moment that helped to make you who you are? Is there a special memory that makes you smile when you least expect it?

The book records what daughters and sons wanted to tell Russert about their own fathers, most of whom were not super dads or heroes but ordinary men who were remembered and cherished for some of their best moments- of advice, tenderness, strength, honor, discipline, and occasional eccentricity. This book is for all fathers, young or old, who can learn from the men in these pages how to get it right, and to understand that sometimes it is the little gestures that can makethe big difference for your child. For some in this book, the appreciation came later than they would have liked. But as Wisdom of Our Fathers reminds us, it is never too late to embrace it.

A chapter in the book deals with stories of forgiveness. One of these entitled ‘The Shell Game’ reads as follows:

"Every birthday or Father's Day, I would buy Dad a bag of white pistachio nuts. We'd devour them together and then play tricks on each other by hiding bags of shells where the uneaten nuts used to be. How delighted he was when I fell for it and reached in to find a handful of shells! And I was delighted when I could trick him back.

The day before my 25th birthday, my father disowned me. We had a major falling out at Disney World, where dad and his new wife were treating us to a week's vacation. Falling out: a strange way to describe an argument but an apt way to describe the sensation of losing one's balance, of being catapulted out of childhood into a new and more frightening vision of the world and one's place in it. We were about to head off to a dinner show, the Hoop-Dee-Doo review, when Dad declared that my husband and I were "No longer part of this family unit." He summarily kicked us out of the hotel at Fort Wilderness village. It's hard to find a car to rent at Disney World on Christmas day.

Later that week, we got home to a letter from Dad. "Please take your husband's last name," he wrote. "You don't deserve to carry mine." For months my dreams were vivid and violent. I dreamed I would pay him back every penny he ever spent raising me. Maybe that would unmake him my father. Then I dreamed I would take a hammer to his kneecaps.

I thought of him almost daily, my anger mixed with a yearning for reconciliation. Years passed with no contact until my first child was born. As a new parent, I could not imagine feeling anger and disappointment sharp enough, or pervasive enough, to ever cast off my child. How could Dad have done so, felt so? How wounded my father must be, how damaged his soul from his own father's stern disapproval that never abated before he died. When nursing my son one day, I decided I would reach out to him.

On Father's Day I mailed him a bag of pistachios. I sent no note. He sent me back the empty shells. No note. But I smiled, I imagine he did to.

What lesson did you receive from your father and if you are a father what lesson do you think you passed on to your children?

Posted July 16, 2007

'Big Dreams' - The Threads Of Our Lives?

"Our dreams have to do with how we internalize the people we love" - Pamela McCarthy, director of counseling services at Smith College.

Rebecca Cathcart in the July 3, 2007 issue of The NY Times wrote an article headlined “Winding Through ‘Big Dreams’ Are the Threads of Our Lives” from which the following is excerpted:

I was a windowless office when my mother called to say my father had died. It wasn’t a surprise. He had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer the year before. At the end of the second week, I had a dream that remains crisp and vivid in my mind. I sat up in bed and saw my father across the room. His figure was full and healthy and framed by the yellow light that glowed in the stairwell outside my door. He was grinning, green eyes on me, and listening to sounds from the dining room below, the clinking of plates and the voices of my extended family laughing and sharing memories of him. He raised his dark eyebrows and laughed with them.

Back to life” or “visitation” dreams, are vivid and memorable dreams of the dead. They are a particularly potent form of what Carl Jung called “big dreams,” the emotionally vibrant ones we remember for the rest of our lives. “Big dreams are transformative,” Roger Knudson said. “The dreaming imagination does not just harvest images from remembered experience, it has a “poetic creativity” that connects the dots and “deforms the given,” turning scattered memories and emotions into vivid, experiential vignettes that can help us to reflect on our lives.”

Grief itself is transformative. It is a process of disassembly. The bereaved must let go of the selves they were, as well as the loved ones they have lost. The dreams we have while grieving are an important part of that process. “Our dreams have to do with how we internalize the people we love,” said Pamela McCarthy. “You learn to look within for the loved one and the particular function that person played in your life, such as caretaking or guidance in the case of a parent. This becomes part of a function that you can provide for yourself.”

Cultural narratives in regions like Vietnam and North and South America consider such dreams actual encounters with the spirits of lost loved ones. “This notion is so widely shared by traditions all across the globe that some scholars have gone so far as to argue that religion itself actually originated in dream experience,” Kelly Bulkeley wrote in his book “Transforming Dreams: Learning Spiritual Lessons From the Dreams You Never Forget” (2000).

Current dream study has its epic narrative in the life and dreams of the pseudonymous Ed, a widower who recorded 22 years of dreams about Mary, his deceased wife. Ed made his journal available to G. William Domhoff, a leading dream theorist. Dr. Domhoff categorized the dreams and cross-referenced them with Ed’s waking reflections on his wife, their marriage and her death from ovarian cancer on June 15, 1980. In a path-breaking study in 2004, Dr. Domhoff asserted that Ed’s dreams could not be the nonsensical noise of a restless brain stem. They represented the currents of loss, love and confusion in Ed’s waking life.

Ed and Mary’s love began on a seaside boardwalk in 1947. They wed a year later, when Ed was 25 and Mary 22. In his more comforting dreams, Mary appears young and radiant as she did that day, with dark hair and bewitching eyes. In Ed’s dreams, his companionship with Mary and her withdrawal during an arduous illness are recurrent themes. Sometimes, his mind weaves these threads together to poignant effect, as when Ed finds himself standing across the street from where Mary sits in a car, unable to cross over. Other times, they form jumbled, comic events. Ed and Mary are lost in a city. They see Jerry Seinfeld and ask him for directions. Soon, Ed realizes that Mary has left with Mr. Seinfeld. He broods behind a building and begins to sink in quicksand. Almost 20 years after Mary’s death, Ed dreams he is walking down a hallway in their old apartment. It leads to Mary’s hospital room, where she lies, gaunt and still. Her head, according to Ed’s journal, is “hanging over the top edge of the bed.” Her hair is sparse, as it was after chemotherapy. “I sit on the bed,” he writes, “and cradle her in my arms.”

Dreams of the dead keep alive our connections to lost loved ones. “Big dreams, those dreams that stop you dead in your tracks, are for precisely that purpose,” said Dr. Knudson, whose father died three years ago. “They pull us out of our headlong rush forward. They yank us back down from our schedule books and our jobs. He continued, “I don’t want to get over my father. That’s not to say that I want to suffer on a daily basis or that I don’t want to understand that he is dead. But I look forward to dreams in which my father will come again. What does it mean to ‘get over’ it? I think that is crazy.”

Have you experienced “back to life” or “visitation” dreams?

Posted July 8, 2007

An Apple For The Church?

"Jesus was the greatest marketing genius to ever live" - David Kuo

In the Beliefnet.com blog of June 29, 2007 there is an interesting discussion about ten things churches could learn from the iPod manufacturer, Apple.

The blog writer, David Kuo, provided a few suggestions to start off the list and further suggestions were supplied by his readers. The list of suggestions distilled to the following:

1. Be innovative - This was actually once true of the church. The early church changed the world by being totally original - caring for widows and orphans, caring for the graves of the dead, caring for discarded babies. Churches need to be original again - not just reflecting popular culture but driving it in compelling ways.

2. Be excited - Apple is unabashedly excited about being Apple. Churches need to be more excited about being loving, caring, original, important representatives of God.

3. Excel in marketing - Jesus was the greatest marketing genius to ever live. He played to peoples' curiosity. He answered questions with questions. He was mysterious. Apple gets this. Apple excels at mystery.

4) Stay positive and learn from your failures – Apple has been a little slow on this one.

5) Thrive on word of mouth. Let the message be carried by disciples more than leaders – iPods are sold by iPod users.

6) Trust that people know their own needs. Let the ministered lead the ministry – Need an iPhone?

7) Remember what you're good at and do it – Simplicity of message and design. Don't get involved in things with which you have little experience or expertise.

8) Resist jealousy- listen to those outside the church with genuine curiosity, as Apple does with ideas that originate outside the company.

9) Resist arrogance- embrace change. As Jesus teaches, let the dead bury their dead.

10) Come with cool accessories – Is the King James version of the bible 'cool'?

Could any of these suggestions reinvigorate a moribund faith?

Posted July 2, 2007