Archive for July through September 2006
Note: This archive contains all of my posts for this month that are not included in some other series. I really don't have the time to save things in more than one place. If you're looking for a specific item, use the "Search" button in the upper left hand corner. Thanks.
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Tying the Knot
Posted for Sunday, July 9, 2006
I performed a wedding today for a young woman from my church and her new husband. In the wedding they literally tied the knot, taking a couple of minutes to weave together three strands of rope, and then tie the strands together with several knots. The three piece of rope were meant to represent the joining of their two lives together, with the third piece standing for Christ's presence in their marriage. All of this was connected to the text of Ecclesiastes 4:12, which reads, "A threefold cord is not quickly broken." Now this couple has a memento of their wedding, something that reminds them, not only of the wedding itself, but also of the centrality of Christ in their married life.
As I was preparing to do the wedding homily, I began to wonder where the expression "tie the knot" comes from. So I googled on "tie the knot," and came up with 1,180,000 hits. After poking around a bit I discovered that there are a several theories about the origin of "tie the knot" as a way of talking about getting married.
One suggestion is that "tie the knot" derives from the time when married couples would need a new bed. Before mattress and box spring sets, beds were made from wooden frames with ropes strung across the frames, upon which were placed straw mattresses. Newlywed couples thus had to "tie the knot" of their marriage bed.
This is what the couple produced in the wedding today.
Another suggestion points to the ancient Celtic wedding ritual in which the hands of the bride and groom were ceremonially tied together to signify their marriage bonds. In some quarters this was called "handfasting" (i.e. fastening hands together with rope).
Apparently handfasting is still used today in pagan weddings, which are even called "handfastings." Traditionally, the handfasting signified a commitment of one year and one day, after which the handfasted couple would decide whether to renew their commitment for another year. In some cases the handfasting year was a trial run, after which the couple would be considered married for a lifetime. Of course this is quite different from the Christian notion of marriage being "till death do us part."
As I reflected on the knot tying dimension of marriage, I remember a passage in the New Testament from Paul's letter to the Colossians:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
In the original Greek, the last sentence reads, quite literally: "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which is the binding together of perfection." We would tend to say that love is that which perfectly binds together the Christian life. Or, more simply, love is the perfect knot.
It's always dangerous to use the word "love," because it is so often cheapened in our society. The love that ties together the Christian life, the love that binds husband and wife together in lifelong marriage, is not the romantic love celebrated in pop culture. It's not a matter of feelings and whims. Rather, the perfect knot kind of love is self-giving commitment to another person. It's the love of God in Christ, the One who gave up His own life for our sake.
The phrase "tie the knot" may have a pagan origin. But it also works as we think about marriage from a Christian perspective. From a Christian point of view, a wedding is indeed a knot-tying ceremony. But neither the bride, nor the groom, nor the pastor tie the most important knot. It is God who binds a man and a woman together, making the two into one. Moreover, it is the love of God, "the binding together of perfect," or "the perfect knot," that will keep them together as they face the difficult challenges of marriage.
Choking on Spam
Posted for Monday, September 4, 2006
When I was growing up, every now and then my mother would fix Spam for dinner. Maybe she knew that if she served Spam every now and then we'd be more grateful for our usal fare of natural meat products. Or maybe it was her secret plot to turn me and my siblings into vegetarians.
Now that I have more control over what I eat, I don't eat Spam. But that's not to imply that my lfie is spam-free. Hardly! I deal with spam every day, Internet spam, that is. spam, as you probably know, is that unwanted, pesky, demonic stuff that fills your e-mail in-box. If you're getting more spam than you can believe, don't worry. You're not alone. A recent study found that 70% of all e-mail is spam. Yikes!
This study also found what the content of spam seems to be changing. Fewer emails are advertising porn sites, while more are trying to sell medication of one form or another. 36% of spam wants you to but medicine. 19% wants to get your personal financial information so somebody out there and rip you off ("phishing" schemes). Oddly enough, it seems like many of the somebodies out there are in Russia, or are using Russian Internet services, at any rate. If you track the sources of the spam in your in box, you'll be surprised how much comes with a .ru suffix.
I've often wondered what's the point. Surely, I reasoned, people aren't responding favorably to spam offers. But a story in Wired News set me straight. It seems that, three years ago, a security flaw in a website allowed outsiders to discover how effect spam campaigns actually were. A product that promised to enhance male sexuality attracted 6,000 positive responses in a four-week period, with average orders around $100. You do the math. That's $600,000. So you can see why hucksters of dubious morality are filling your in-box. There are still plenty of suckers out there who are rewarding the spammers.
For me, one of the most frustrating kinds of spam fills, not my email inbox, but my website bulletinboard. When I first starting using a simple bulletin board program, before long I was getting all measure of junk in there: porn links, phony sales offers, and so forth. Then I upgraded by bulletinboard to a more sophisticated program. For a while I seemed to be protected. But, after a while, the spam started to invade. In recent weeks I've been getting a dozen or more new "members" of my bulletinboard. But most of these have no interest in the content of my blog. They are simply trying to promote their goodies, mainly pharmaceutical products, online poker, and pornography.
So, in an effort to get away from spam once again, I'm changing my website bulletinboard once again. Those who want to comment on my blog will need to go through a short screening process engineered by Typepad, the host of my new bulletinboard. Once somebody has a Typepad ID, it will be easy for that person to engage in online conversation. Others can read along without registering. And spammers -- I hope -- will have harder time trying to invade the sanctity of my bulletinboard.
Actually, this change offers a number of pluses apart from spam security. It will make conversation about my writing much easier, I think, more user friendly, if you will. (In case you're wondering why I don't have the "Comments" capability of most blogs, you should know that I don't use an automated blogging service. This gives me lots of freedom, but makes certain features, like commenting, rather difficult.)
A Little More About Spam
Why, I wonder, do we call unwanted, junk e-mails and the like "spam"? The consensus of opinion is that the name is based, not on the luncheon meat, but on the song that was a part of a skit on Monty Python's Flying Circus. This song included a bunch of Vikings singing: "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam! Wonderful spam!" To hear a bit of this marvelous number, click here (.mov, 96 K). The point would seem to be that spam is a bothersome invasion into one's consciousness that keeps on going without end. That would describe Internet spam pretty accurately, I think.
Of course Spam is also and originally a luncheon meat. I remember eating Spam when I was a boy. It was usually fried, and often served with eggs (in place of bacon or ham). Sometimes we'd have Spam as the main course for dinner. My mother liked Spam, I think, because it reminded her of her childhood. It was a common food during World War II.
What is Spam, really, you wonder? Well, there is a nifty Spam website with a FAQ page that will answer this question, and almost anything else you might wonder about Spam (if you wonder about Spam at all). Spam is a combination of pork shoulder and ham, along with "secret spices." The name "Spam" was thought up by Kenneth Daigneau, who won $100 in a Hormel "name this wonderful luncheon meat" contest.
Spam, by the way, debuted in 1937. Since that time Hormel has sold over 5 billion cans of Spam. Just think about it. That's just a little less than one can of Spam for every human being on earth.
If you'd like to learn more about Spam, you can always visit the Spam Museum. It's in Austin, Minnesota, near the Iowa state line. More fun, perhaps, would be an experience with the Spammobile. I wonder if you can rent one of these for a summer RV trek?
Above: an actual ad for Spam from the 1940s. Makes you hungry, right?
Below: the Spammobile
Below that: a Las Vegas slot machine
Last time I visited Las Vegas, I was wandering through the casino of my hotel. Lo and behold, I spotted a slot machine that surprised me. I didn't play that slot, since I'm not inclined to gamble. But I must say I did wonder. If you hit the jackpot on this machine, what would you win? Money? Or Spam? Cans of Spam! "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam! Wonderful spam!"
May you have a restful and spam-free Labor Day!
Elegy for the Crocodile Hunter
Posted for Tuesday, September 5, 2006
On Sunday evening my son said to me, "Dad, today should be a day of mourning."
"Why?" I asked. A look of true sadness in his eyes told me he wasn't joking.
"Because Steve Irwin died . . . the Crocodile Hunter."
"No way!" I responded. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Nathan replied. "Just check the Internet."
And so I did, confirming the sad truth that Steve Irwin had died.
He was one of those people who seemed to be, well, almost immortal. Steve Irwin was famous for wrestling crocodiles, handling venomous snakes (or "snikes," as he would have said), and doing things that get most people killed. But he was a "professional," one who didn't even get scratched when toying with deadly carnivores. In the end, it appears that Steve Irwin wasn't killed while handling some dangerous beast. A sting ray stung him in the heart while he was swimming overhead . . . a freak and completely unexpected accident.
My fondness for the Crocodile Man comes, in part, from an experience I had a couple of summers ago. For Vacation Bible School at my church I impersonated Steve Irwin. For several days I studied film and sound clips of the man, watching his movie several times. I tried my best to imitate not only his look, but his voice, distinctive accent, idiosyncratic sayings, and, above all, his bubbling enthusiasm. Then, I put my efforts to work in a week-long VBS skit. (If you'd like to see some of my Irwinist efforts, check out this link.)
Through this experience I developed an affection for Steve Irwin. I admired his boundless enthusiasm. When he was excited about something – a big croc, an unusual spider, a scary snake – he couldn't contain himself. His love for life was vibrant and contagious.
In the accounts of his death, Steve Irwin is called a "naturalist." That's a fine description, though his "naturalism" was less of the academic kind and more of a dramatic variety. He was a superb showman, who used his telegenic personality and boyish daring to teach people, especially kids, about animals and to encourage us to take care of them.
Sometimes evangelical Christians get cynical about environmentalism. It might be tempting to write off Steve Irwin as a "tree hugger," or well, a "croc hugger." But we mustn't forget that God told us to take care of his creation, and of the animals in particular. After creating the man and woman in Genesis 1, God said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1: 28). Implicit in the command to "have dominion" is the notion of caring responsibly for God's good creation, including the kinds of animals that Steve Irwin loved.
What makes me saddest about Steve Irwin's death isn't my loss, or the world's loss of an entertaining naturalist, but rather the loss suffered by his wife and two young children. This is especially poignant for me as someone with a wife and two children. I'm reminded that life is unpredictable, and that I can't guarantee how many days I have left on this earth. So, in memory of Steve Irwin, today I will delight more in the good things of this life. Most of all, I will hug, not crocodiles, since I don't have any of these around, but rather my wife and kids. I will treasure the time I have with them even more because of Steve Irwin. Thanks, mate!
Who is Really Wicked?
Posted for Wednesday, September 6, 2006
My family and I recently saw the touring version of the musical Wicked during its stopover in Orange County, California. Wicked is one of the most popular musicals in recent history. In fact, during the last week of 2005, Wicked had the highest weekly box office gross of any show in Broadway history: $1,610,934. After seeing the musical, I can understand why it has been so popular. It's clever, often funny, sometimes moving, and generally thought-provoking. The staging is eye-catching, and the music ranks among the best of Broadway musicals in a comic genre.
Wicked is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which is itself based upon The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. Maguire's Wicked is a revisionist telling of the familiar story, which fills in the blanks and turns many things upside down. I have not read the novel, but I understand it is adult fare. The musical, on the contrary, is suitable for children ten years of age and older. Younger children might be scared by some of the action.
Apart from simply enjoying Wicked as a work of musical comedy, I was fascinated by its moral world, especially in comparison with the earlier work of Baum and its popularization in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. That movie, as you may recall, includes a measure of moral ambiguity, when it turns out that the "wonderful" Wizard of Oz isn't wonderful at all, but rather a kind-hearted deceiver. Yet in the original story and movie, the Wicked Witch of the West (frighteningly played by Margaret Hamilton) is truly and fully evil, whereas Dorothy and her cadre are truly and simply good.
Margaret Hamilton as the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. Alas, she's melting.
This has changed in Wicked the musical (and book). Elphaba, who grows up to become the Wicked Witch of the West, isn't really a witch in the ordinary sense, and she's not wicked in the ordinary sense either. Rather, she's an unfortunate girl who happens to have green skin and some curious telekinetic powers. Because of her appearance she is despised by her father and derided by her schoolmates. Even so, Elphaba has a good heart, and doesn't turn into a wicked witch because of social wounds. Rather, she ends up using her magic powers for what she perceives to be good, opposing the self-serving and morally-corrupt Wizard. The Wizard and his truly evil colleague, Madame Morrible, create the fiction of the Wicked Witch of the West to augment their domination of the hapless Ozians.
I found all of this quite fascinating. After all, we live in a world full of moral ambiguity. For example, we tend to believe our political leaders are on the side of good, while our enemies (Islamic terrorists, etc.) are evil. But there are millions of people in the world who believe exactly the opposite. What are we to make of this? Is it arrogant to think we are right and they are wrong? Or are right and wrong simply relative, a matter of power more than truth?
Moreover, our cultural talking heads tend to avoid morally clear labels like "evil" and "wicked," preferring to speak in therapeutic or sociological terms. People who do wrong aren't really evil; they're just wounded, victims of the actions of other wounded people or of a broken society. It's not uncommon to hear people argue that terrorists who blow up innocent people aren't evil, but are victims of Western and especially American imperialism.
As Wicked moved along, and as people continually mistreated the unfortunate Elphaba, I expected this sort of development. But, much to my pleasant surprise, it didn't come. Nevertheless, Wicked doesn't see the world through the simplistic terms of L. Frank Baum. I'll have more to say about this tomorrow.
Elphaba (left) and Glinda from the cast of the Orange County show.
Who is Really Wicked? Section B
Posted for Thursday, September 7, 2006
Yesterday I began some reflections based on Wicked, the musical based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which is itself based upon The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The musical, like the book, focuses on the lives of the "witches" of Oz, especially Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, who becomes Glinda the Good. (For more details, scroll to yesterday's post.)
Wicked turns the moral world of the Wizard of Oz upside down by making Elphaba basically good and even virtuous. The only times she acknowledges being wicked, she uses "wicked" in unusual ways. First, she admits to being "wicked" when she feels a strong sexual attraction to Fiyero, but she doesn't engage in fornication, only passionate embracing. Then, in the song "No Good Deed" Elphaba allows herself to be thought of as wicked, but this reflects her despair over the fact that her good intentions have had negative consequences:
One question haunts and hurts
Too much, too much to mention:
Was I really seeking good
Or just seeking attention?
Is that all good deeds are
When looked at with an ice-cold eye?
If that's all good deeds are
Maybe that's the reason why
No good deed goes unpunished
All helpful urges should be circumvented
No good deed goes unpunished
Sure, I meant well -
Well, look at what well-meant did:
All right, enough - so be it
So be it, then:
Let all Oz be agreed
I'm wicked through and through
Since I can not succeed
Fiyero, saving you
I promise no good deed
Will I attempt to do again
No good deed
Will I do again!
Wicked does not give way to moral relativism. Elphaba doesn't deny the existence of true goodness. Rather, she admits that her efforts to be good have failed. Moreover, though she isn't wicked as we might expect of The Wicked Witch of the West, true wickedness does exist in Oz. The Wizard toys with recognizable evil, while his advisor Madame Morrible is the truly wicked one who, among other things, commits murder to further achieve her selfish goals. Yet, in time, she is discovered and imprisoned by Glinda the Good. Justice prevails, at least in part.
In the emotional climax of the musical, the song "For Good," the question of goodness is engaged in its ambiguity. Elphaba and Glinda acknowledge their deep and ironic friendship, something that has changed them both. Each of them sings:
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.
Note the irony here. Have they been changed "for good" in the sense of "forever," or "for good" in these sense of "for the better," or is it both? The end of the song resolves this riddle, as they sing:
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
I do believe I have been changed for the better. . . .
Because I knew you:
I have been changed for good.
Elphaba (played by Idina Menzel) and Glinda (Kristen Chenoweth) exchange an intimate moment near the singing of "For Good." For a fun You Tube clip of these two actresses rehearsing this part,
They have been changed both for the better and forever. The audience agrees, seeing that these women did indeed grow morally because of their relationship.
Wicked does not make the case, as I expected, that people do wrong because they are mistreated by others and therefore should not be condemned for their deeds. It does show that sometimes the ones we consider to be evil are truly good, and vice versa. Yet Wicked is not an argument for moral relativism. Rather, it calls for a deeper understanding of the nature of good and evil, and for more careful discernment about who is good and who is wicked.
In the end, however, Wicked isn't an argument at all. It's an engaging and pleasing musical that even leaves one with something to think about when the curtain falls.