Flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy Part 2: Ah, Mary

Or “Becoming Orthodox” by Peter Gillquist Part 2

I grew up in the Independent Christian Church, which means that I’m pretty far out on the rapidly spreading branches of Protestantism.  I couldn’t really tell you what the Independent Christian Church believes, however, as the church I attended as a youngster was a small, country church, and I didn’t pay much attention until high school.  Church or denominational history didn’t really enter in to it, although we did claim to be non-denominational.  We answered to no central council or authority, in other words.  All this to say, being of a Protestant bent, I have some very strong reactions to thoughts of Mary beyond what is generally shared in The Nativity Story.  Praying to Mary seems rather odd and uncomfortable to me.

Well, I’ve reached the chapter on Mary in Gillquist’s book and I’m a bit surprised by some of my reactions.  First, I either agree with him or at least take his point on a few issues.  I understand the reasoning behind the phrase “Mother of God”.  It actually makes sense to me.  The gist of the phrase is that Mary isn’t so much the mother of the Trinity (as the Trinity has no mother), but that she is the mother of Jesus, who was divine.  “Mother of God”, therefore, asserts that Jesus is God, not merely mortal and human as some heresies throughout church history have claimed.  Okay, this makes sense to me.

I take the point that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived due to the fact that God chose her, and he chose her due to her purity.  She is also a role model of obedience, purity and faithfulness.

But what truly surprised me was when I started to see the reasoning behind the believe that Mary was Ever-Virgin.  Sure, Protestants will agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but I think very few would say she and Joseph never consummated their marriage.  However, the Orthodox do believe this, thus Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Now, it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to think Joseph would be okay with never having marital relations with Mary.  It seemed ridiculous to think Mary was Ever-Virgin because, well, didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters?   Church tradition asserts that James was the brother of Jesus.  There are actually two things that have made me begin to waver on this idea.  First, Ezekiel 44:1-2, a verse from a prophetic book, so take that for what it is worth, states, “ Then he brought me back to the outer gate to the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. (NASB)’” The implication here is that the gate is Mary’s womb and that Jesus entered the world by her womb and “no man shall enter”.  The prophetic language here is rather compelling.  But it is one verse, right?  Well, the second thing that began to sway me was the account in John’s Gospel when Jesus, while on the cross, saw his mother and John.  He told Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” then told John, “here is your mother.”  Essentially, he is providing for the care of His mother, trusting her to John’s care and provision.  This seems to be quite reasonable until I realized that if Jesus had brothers, why would He give Mary to the care of a disciple.  It would be the responsibility of the His brothers to look after Mary.  Thus, this is a bit of an oddity.  It is true that sometimes the Bible uses the term “brother” to designate a close relation (cousin, nephew, etc.), so there is room for Jesus to be an only child.  There is room for her to be Ever-Virgin.  The question I have now becomes, is it truly essential to believe this?  Does it really change anything I believe?  At this point, I’m not sure that it does, but who would have thought the whole filioque issue would mean much without the tapestry of church history to observe?

These are the things that I’m coming around on, although the Ever-Virgin idea is still new and uncomfortable because it is in contrast to my Protestant heritage.  But I mentioned things that I am still unconvinced by.  These have to deal with Mary as intercessor and Mary saving us, both ideas are present in prayer by The Orthodox Church.  I will grant Gillquist that Christians have a part in the salvation process.  Paul says we are ambassadors of Christ.  While Christ does the actual saving, we can help point people to Him, we can witness to His work and kingdom.  We can turn others from destructive ways.  In doing this we save them, but we do not actually give them salvation.  That is Christ’s alone to give.  But while I agree with Gillquist on this point, why ask Mary to save us when it is Christ doing the saving?  Many of the examples of Christians saving people involve the living helping the living, not someone in Heaven helping someone on Earth.  Likewise with intercession, if I ask someone to pray for me, I don’t do it by praying to them.  And the examples Gillquist uses on both intercession and saving could be used, it seems to me, with any saint that has gone before.  Why not pray to Paul or Peter or Mother Theresa?  Granted, praying to the saints does play out, but prayers in the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father) show believers praying to God in Heaven.  Why the middleman?  And isn’t Christ our intercessor before God?  I’m not sure Gillquist has convinced me on this part.


Flirting With Eastern Orthodoxy

Recently I have begun to study the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.  This was due in part to feeling that my evangelical faith is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but also due to a man I respect and admire joining the Eastern Orthodox Church, which caused me to want to investigate the history and theology of the Orthodox Church.  Working in a Christian bookshop has enabled me to gain access to a few books on the topic as they come in (which is not very common in the mid-western United States).  My starting point has been a book by Peter E. Gillquist titled Becoming Orthodox.  It is a memoir of sorts that chronicles the journey of Gillquist and other evangelical Protestants as they attempt to understand the their life in faith, which eventually led them to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I finished part one tonight and wanted to write up a few thoughts.

Are you leading me astray?

First, I seem to agree with Eastern Orthodoxy on two of their criticisms of Catholicism and Western Christianity.  The Pope, while I don’t believe him to be an evil man as some evangelicals seem to portray him, is not an office I see a lot of precedent for.  I acknowledge that The Bishop of Rome was historically important as the seat of Christianity moved there after the destruction of Jerusalem, but does that necessarily mean that The Bishop of Rome should evermore be the head of the world-wide Church?  I find it a bit uncomfortable, I admit, but I’m also willing, at the moment, to agree to disagree on this particular issue.

The second criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, one that I discovered in doing some earlier research on the tradition, requires the filioque debate.  Essentially, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects a change that was made to the Nicene Creed.  Originally, the creed stated that The Holy Spirit proceeded from The Father and is to be worshipped with The Father and The Son, which was in accordance with John 15:26.  However, the Nicene Creed in the West was eventually changed to the Holy Spirit proceeding from The Father and The Son.  On first glance, this seems to be a very minor, almost insignificant change.  However, the more I thought about it and the more I looked at the Evangelical Church in America, the more I began to see how marginalized The Holy Spirit has become in all but the Charismatic denominations (and even there, the view of The Spirit almost seems to have swung completely too far in the other direction).  The Spirit is discussed, but it certainly isn’t seen as, or talked about, being on equal footing with The Father and The Son.  I think Francis Chan addresses this issue, albeit without Eastern Orthodox leanings, in his book Forgotten God. So, I find myself agreeing rather firmly with the Orthodox Church on the filioque issue.

Levar Burton told me to take a look, it's in a book, so that's where I'm looking.

Does this mean I’m Eastern Orthodox now?  I rather doubt it.  Honestly, I haven’t done nearly enough research to consider any changes, but I do feel drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy in ways that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend.  And while Gillquist’s book makes for interesting reading for a beginner on this topic, it sounds somewhat similar to other “is church as we know it truly the historic church” books.  Although, in Gillquist’s defense, his was written about fifteen years before some of these other books, and he points firmly to an ancient practice of Christianity, rather than a post-modern one.  But I must confess that my knowledge of Church history is quite basic and not developed enough to really know if I can refute some of Gillquist’s claims with regard to First Century Church practices and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not all scholars in New Testament Christianity seem to become Eastern Orthodox.  I rather enjoy N.T. Wright’s scholarship, and he is Anglican.  But, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.  I know a few other traditions also claim to be The Historic Church.  They can’t all be correct.

My final thoughts on the subject.  Gillquist mentioned that the Western Church has continued to reform and counter-reform, dividing into smaller and smaller branches, while the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained constant.  I must admit that I want to know how accurate this claim is.  I have wondered in the past if the Western Church is either a) continually attempting to reform itself into something that it has subconsciously lost, or b) founded on the attitude of “no, that’s not the way to do it, my way is!”.  We really do seem to keep dividing and subdividing.  Is the Eastern Orthodox Church really different in this regard?  If you can fill in my gaps of knowledge on this, I would certainly appreciate it.

Love Wins Part Three

In other reviews of Love Wins, I have read the accusation that it is hard to pin Rob Bell down on what he believes.  And that is somewhat true if you are trying to discover if Bell believes in universalism.  I hate to tell you, but if you are looking for Bell to say “I believe . . . ” you won’t find it up to this point.

Chapter Four is, it seems from various reviews, the big one.  It is the chapter that talks about reconciliation.  It is the first chapter that has shades of universalism.  And yet, nowhere in this chapter does Bell affirm reconciliation.  He talks about it, certainly.  Much of the chapter discusses it.  But he also talks of another theory of hell in which our humanity is burned away as we choose a life apart from God.  This idea is present in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.  Rather than an explicit statement of belief, Bell delivers an attack against presumption.  He asks questions about eternal, conscious torment and whether it can be loving.  He asks whether or not people have a choice if there is reconciliation. He asks if life really is the only chance we have to choose God or if there may be another chance later.  Then, he delivers what I believe to be the most concise statement of why he wrote the book:

“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” (Love Wins, pg 115)

I take this to mean that we shouldn’t presume to know the details of how God will judge the dead.  We should be willing to say we are unsure but trust that God will allow us the freedom of choosing existence with Him or without Him.  As Bell states on page 116, a “better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard empirical evidence…is not ‘does God get what God wants?’ but ‘Do we get what we want?'”

Basically, Bell concludes, if we want existence with God, God welcomes us.  If we want existence without God, He grants that as well.  Love is the freedom God gives us to choose what we want and He grants that choice “because love wins.”

I believe, in his own way, Bell is telling us to lay off the speculation, to not be so willing and eager to die on our theological swords regarding the exact nature of Hell and God’s judgment.


One thing that saddened me in the critiques of Love Wins was the insistence of the reviewers that Bell leaves out the work of the cross and how it relates to the overall subject of the book.  Imagine my surprise when I read chapter five and found that the entire chapter is about the cross and the metaphors early church writers used to communicate their understanding of Christ’s sacrifice to the cultures in which they lived.  Perhaps I misread the critiques, but this seems to be a massive oversight.  Now, I can understand that Bell may not have interpreted the cross the way they wished.  Indeed, he likens what many would term the facets of the cross to mere metaphors, both truthful but still analogy.  The cross was a sacrificial atonement.  The cross was a justification for our sins.  On the cross, we were redeemed.  These are all true, and they are all metaphors.  He suggests we need to find metaphors that will convey the same image to our current culture, which has little to know real understanding of the sacrificial system.  I tend to agree.

Between reading chapters 4 and 5, chapters that I felt would be the most controversial in the book, I found myself quite shocked that I agreed with Bell’s premise and intention, if not necessarily specific details.  From the pre-release reviews, I expected to find a book in which Rob Bell went so far afield as to undermine some basic tenants of scripture.  To a degree, I don’t think he has.  But at the same time, I can see why some people think he did.

Love Wins is not a chapter by chapter analysis of specific, individual concepts.  It is a book that builds a case, an argument, and as stated before, the argument is that we should refrain from speculating too much (or more accurately, allow freedom for different interpretations) on God’s judgment and the afterlife.  Bell seems to be saying that he thinks we have given too much time to talking about Hell as eternal, conscious torment and not enough time talking about God’s desire to be reconciled to all mankind and all of creation.  This is God’s love for us, that he set in motion a plan which would allow all of creation to be redeemed, yet still allows humanity the freedom to choose otherwise.  If we choose the reconciliation, we are welcomed home and can find a life that is more in line with God’s plan for creation.  If we do not choose God, well, we don’t know for sure.  We know that life apart from God is not true life, but we are given that freedom and many different people have interpreted the consequences in different ways.  This seems to be the message Bell is attempting to convey.  However, I don’t know if many of the critiques are seeing this message because so many people are reading the book with an agenda, and that agenda is to find out, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?”  And every statement in the book that supports the agenda is processed and every statement that doesn’t may be glossed over.  Due to the controversy surrounding the book and Rob Bell as an individual, I would only personally recommend the book to people I knew were very discerning and willing to engage with Love Wins in a thoughtful way, cross-referencing scripture where necessary.  In our society we have very short attention spans and we tend to process in sound bytes, and make no mistake, Rob Bell tends to write in sound bytes.  But, if you put aside reactionary emotion and try to follow his arguments, some admittedly stronger than others, you may be surprised that he does indeed toe the evangelical line in many of his conclusions.  The difficulty is figuring out what his conclusions are.  This is where that discernment kicks in.  Yes, he spends much of chapter four detailing ideas and arguments for reconciliation, but his bottom line at the end of the chapter is that this is one view that some in the church have had (and yes, I think he may overstate the case a bit, but he is, technically, correct that some have had and still do believe in reconciliation).  He may spend so much time writing about reconciliation because he personally hopes for it, or he may spend so much time on it because he knows it is directly opposed to the interpretation many people have of Hell and God’s judgment.  In the end, he asks that we let this remain a mystery and focus on what we do know: That God allows us to choose our fate and that choice directly influences our life and the world around us.  If we choose to align with God, we will find life.  If we choose against God, we create Hell for ourselves and our life wanes.  And when we die . . . who knows for sure but God.


Chapter six is a bit more troubling, however.  I must admit that either I’m not following Bell’s arguments well or he isn’t making them clearly and concisely.  Chapter six deals with the idea that people who do not share our specific view of Jesus may, in fact, go to heaven.  The basic premise is twofold.  First, Jesus can be distorted through cultural misrepresentation.  Fair enough.  Second, Bell seems to conclude that there are people in other religions that may find Christ by being devout and following the Christ-like qualities inherent in their culture or religion.  And while I’m certainly open to this discussion, I wouldn’t say that this is the same as knowing Christ.  The very concept of missions set forth in the New Testament is  predicated on the preaching and explanation of the specific person of Christ.  Even people who come to Christ through visions have specific visions that point to Christ.  It is the Christian’s responsibility to explain and interpret, to point people toward Christ.  Like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that all myths, in some way, point to the True Myth, the story of God and the redemption of creation and mankind.  However, all myths have competing ideas that distort or obscure the truth in them, and often they must be explained and reinterpreted in light of Christ.  This is what Paul did in Athens in Acts 17:22-31.  The Gospel is something that must be proclaimed.  Christ is someone who must be known.  Now, I doubt that Rob Bell would disagree with this, but Chapter Six does seem to give the impression that maybe people can find their own ways to Christ.  And truly, Jesus does appear to people and call to them in dreams and other methods to this day.  But at times the chapter seems to suggest that perhaps people may not find Jesus but will still find the saving love of Jesus.  Again, I want to give Bell the benefit of the doubt, but because of how he wrote this chapter, I can easily see how people would come away from it with the wrong impression, that people will take away from this chapter the idea that as long as you have Christ-like qualities, you will be united to Christ and a part of His Kingdom no matter what you believe.


Chapter Seven, the final chapter before the conclusion, is a bit of an enigma and one that is difficult to deal with.  I say difficult because Bell appears to make an analysis of heaven and hell from the parable of the Prodigal Son, and if this is any type of statement of truth beyond artistic interpretation, I think it is the most disturbing piece of scriptural exegesis in the book.

Bell recounts the parable and draws conclusions that each son in the parable interprets their personal story (or substitute the word “identity”) different from that of the father.  The younger son sees himself as a shameful sinner unworthy of the love of the father.  The father refutes this by accepting the son as an heir.  The older brother sees himself as a man who worked all his life and has not been given the riches and celebratory status his younger brother is now receiving.  The father says that you have always been mine but we must celebrate your brother who has found his way home.  And while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the analysis thus far, Bell goes on to say that the party is heaven for the younger son but hell for the older son.  Heaven and hell are together in the same place.  So I have to ask myself, in this chapter, is Bell talking of the Earthly possibilities of life being heaven and hell, or is he talking at all about the afterlife?

You see, throughout the book, Bell has made a case for heaven and hell being present in our earthly choices, that in our choices and actions we either shine heaven on the world or we bring hell to the world.  In this, I would agree.  But when he speaks of heaven and hell in Chapter Seven, which version of heaven does he speak of, the earthly one or the spiritual one?  Which version of hell?  This is a point of confusion and contention, and while it may make these words, heaven, hell, and love, more palatable to an unbelieving generation, it does cause the water to be muddied.  I hear your words, but I’m not sure what you mean.  Beyond that, I rather think Bell is taking too much meaning from the parable itself, which has all sorts of contextual meanings from the audience Jesus told it to.  I’m not sure, in this particular case, Jesus was trying to convey information about Heaven and Hell, but about how God sees His chosen and those who find Him.  I think Bell is well within his interpretation to talk of the stories each person tells about who they are and to insist that God has a different story.  This is true of humanity.  But the parable is also meant to illustrate how much God longs for us to return.  It is not meant to give an interpretation of Heaven and Hell.

Later in the chapter, Bell talks about the danger of viewing the gospel as a mere destination ticket.  Essentially, if your view of the gospel is nothing more than a ticket out of Hell, it is, quite frankly, incomplete.  This is an interpretation rooted in nothing more than fear, and while I believe people can grow beyond this limited understanding (because, truth be told, I did), to maintain this view can lead to a life of fear and slow-burning resentment of God and those who seem to be enjoying life more than you.

Like the chapter before it, I think that this one can mislead, it can create an incomplete picture.  I think Bell is following his pastoral heart, trying to lead people to a better, more full life with God, but at the same time, I think his poetic, artistic flair is giving more of the emotion than the theology.  As it is, this chapter is powerful, but it isn’t entirely clear at best, or downright unorthodox at worst.


This isn’t a book you can skip around in, it isn’t a book you can just skip to the final chapter and try to get Bell’s opinion.  In truth, this is a book in which Bell truly does attempt to get around preconceived notions about God, Heaven, and Hell and attempt to get his readers to see from a perspective they may not have yet considered.  In this way, read from this light, Love Wins can be a powerful and moving book.  And yet, there are times when the emotional heart from which these words flowed missed some key ideas and facets of God’s nature.  Bell, I believe, has truly felt the love of God in his life and wants others to experience that love.  But I think his poetic heart sung the praises of his love much like many poets wrote sonnets about their lovers.  They were not systematic theologies, they were expressions of emotion.  And throughout, I think this method of interpretation needs to be maintained.  It is a book that has many helpful ideas and images, but it must be read with prayer and discernment.  And while Bell may or may not have shades of universalism in his eschatology, judgment is something spoken of in the New Testament.  Our choices do make a difference both now and later.  But there is little point in focusing exclusively on the later when we can bring the light of Heaven, the light of Christ, to the world with our choices, actions, and attitudes right now.

A final word, especially to those who read the book and disagree strongly with Rob Bell’s assertions, perceived or real.  This is a book that uses poetic language and poetic language, by definition, attempts to convey images and emotions.  Thus, there are many people for whom Love Wins will make a new understanding of God’s love and the work of Jesus.  This may prompt them to delve further into orthodox Christianity, or they may stop short and accept the book at face value.  Either way, there will be an emotional reaction to the book.  If you disagree, in part or in whole, with Love Wins, I caution you to discuss the book with gentleness and discernment.  Before standing tall and loudly proclaiming every statement Bell makes that you believe to be incorrect, I urge you to keep silent and listen to why the book impacts someone.  There is a time to denounce false teachings but keep in mind that many people connect with Rob Bell’s writings because they have had difficult times with other churches, either perceived or out-right abusive situations.  If we rush out to defend Christianity with the swords of our tongues (or fingers in the case of the internet), we may well cause more people to struggle or hide.  You don’t speak to an abused child by yelling.

Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias

Over the course of his career, Ravi Zacharias has proven to be one of the leading voices in Christian apologetics.  I enjoy his writings in particular because he focuses more on philosophy than on scientific evidences.  Zacharias operates more on the assumption that worldview informs our interpretation other evidences.  With the myriad worldviews competing for human attention, it can be daunting for the Christian to know where to start researching.  “Beyond Opinion” is an excellent primer.  The essays contained in the book are written by a number of leading thinkers in Christianity.  This is both the book’s greatest strength and weakness.  If you find writers or essays that grab your attention, then they serve as an entry point for more research.  They give further books to investigate, and many of these authors have other books or essays in publication.  Unfortunately, not all the essays will appeal to every reader, and that can be a bit of a disappointment, especially if you were wanting good information on a given topic.  I found that many essays seemed too short, but given the space requirements of the book, this is understandable but regrettable.

Keeping with Zacharias’ view of apologetics, the book is arranged to get at the root reason for a seeker’s question.  The idea is that the questions asked are the intellectual roadblocks to Christianity, but these questions are not the root of the individual’s objections to Christianity.  There are questions behind the questions, differences in philosophy and worldview that must be addressed when attempting to past surface issues such as objections to suffering and evil.  The book eventually moves to addressing doctrinal issues, although this is not the main focus of the book.

Again, the book is a great primer or survey of the debates that are currently going on in Western society, and a few of the debates from other religions as well.  A great starting point.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

A Review of “The Black Dahlia”

The Black Dahlia
Novel by James Ellroy
Movie Written by Josh Friedman and Directed by Brian De Palma

Lately I seem to be watching movies before reading the book.  When I was in high school, this never happened.  Even if a movie novelization was released, I would read that before watching the movie.  At this point in my life, however, it seems easier to just spend the two hours on the film than a few days on a book.  Case in point, it took me almost three weeks to read this book, and it is the first book I finished this year.  No, I don’t typically read that slow, but I just haven’t had the time.  A self-imposed writing schedule, chores around the house, and the responsibilities to the book shop demand more time than I can often give to books.  I miss them.

I had wanted to watch The Black Dahlia for a while.  I’ve never really be in to film noir, mainly because I hadn’t got around to watching it.  I’ve always loved the look of it, however.  This movie seemed promising, so I checked it out of the library for “guy’s night”.  It isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly suffers in the second half because it starts to get too convoluted and confusing.  Imagine my surprise when the novel is much more complicated, yet pulls things together more successfully.  In the film’s defense, I’ve read that an hour of footage was cut at the studio’s request.  This may account for the failure of the second half.  If they ever restore the footage, I will certainly watch it again.

As for the novel, it is based on The Black Dahlia murder in 1947.  The novel is narrated by Buck Bleichart, an ex-boxer turned cop.  The novel starts with his background and how he met Lee Blanchard and how both of them became golden boys in the warrants division.  Life was looking rather good for the two men until Elizabeth Short’s body was found, carefully posed, in an empty lot.  The Dahlia murder was gruesome, almost fitting serial-killing artistry, yet it seems to have been a one-off.  The murderer was never caught.  This novel takes many of the facts behind the investigation and weaves a coherent narrative and provides a solution to the case, albeit one that is entirely fictional.  You won’t read this novel and know what happened.  To the best of my knowledge, the killer in this novel didn’t exist in real-life.  Ellroy has woven fact and fiction quite brilliantly.

As wonderful and masterful as the mystery is plotted, the journey of the characters make this novel a fascinating read.  Elizabeth Short almost becomes a patron saint for Bleichart, she affects the lives of those investigating her death, and those involved with the investigators.  It is an interesting examination of how, despite being dead, someone can still hold a great pull over another person’s life.  Given that Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was a child, this theme is understandable and brilliantly explored.

I’m not sure I could recommend this novel to everyone.  Given the details of the real-life murder, the story must descend into some very dark territory.  It is gruesome, horrific, and chilling.  There is corruption on the police force as people seek to cover details of personal knowledge of Short’s missing days.  Many characters are very flawed individuals, brutal, racist, perverse.  Noir has never been noted for a light touch, and this being a novel rather than a movie from 1940 (which would be required to follow the code), it has the ability to portray whatever human depravity is necessary to speculate on the murder.  Yet, Ellroy somehow manages to end the novel with a ray of hope in the lives of Bleichart and his wife Kay.  If you are a fan of neo-noir, this book will be right up your alley.  If you love well-crafted mysteries and don’t have a problem with gruesome content, you’ll probably like this book.  Otherwise, you may want to avoid it.  It can be quite disturbing.

Green Lantern #61 and Batman, Inc #2


Green Lantern #61
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Doug Mahnke, and a ton of inkers.

After the disappointment of Batman: The Dark Knight, Green Lantern came as a relief.  This is funny to me since I have felt for the last few issues that Green Lantern has been treading water.  Yes, the story and art have been good, they just haven’t been all that interesting to me.  If nothing else, they have been predictable.  Yes, Parallax would possess The Flash.  That was signposted in the opening pages of #59.  Issue #60 saw the inevitable fight and ultimate revelation of the new villain of the story, The Mad Guardian, a revelation that was on the level of Nekron from Blackest Night (underwhelming).  The final line was also cheesy beyond words.  But with #61 we have what made me a fan of Geoff Johns to begin with:  the balance of intrigue, super-hero action, and character.

Issue 61 focuses on Atrocitus as he hunts for the Rage Entity, The Butcher.  The Butcher finds a home in a father who is attending the execution of his daughter’s murderer.  The Butcher then attempts to use the rage of the father to kill the murderer.  In a wonderful twist, The Spectre appears, forbidding The Butcher access to the murderer.  Vengeance on Earth is the province of The Spectre.  Naturally, a fight ensues.  The murderer is killed.  Atrocitus arrives to capture The Butcher and take him back to Ysmalt.  Atrocitus and The Spectre have a conversation about the role of emotion in vengeance.  It is all rather good, and the art is wonderful.  The Butcher looks especially chilling and awesome.

These are the types of stories I like from Johns.  There are wonderful character moments, hints at big things to come, and it all doesn’t seem too bogged down in continuity or rehashing the past.  There has been a lot of that lately in Green Lantern, and while it has often worked, I’m growing tired of it.  I’m ready for some well-crafted, close-to-home stories similar to those Johns did in his first year or two on the title.  Sometimes I fear he may be spreading himself too thing over the DC Universe.

Why is Mr. Unknown making a monkey pose?

Batman, Inc #2
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Yanick Paquette, Michel Lacombe

The first thing you notice when you open a comic is the art, so I’ll start there.  I have hated the art on this title.  This comes as a surprise to me because I know Yanick Paquette has worked with Morrison in the past and I’ve never hated the art on a Morrison title like I have on this one.  This leads me to wonder who is ultimately to blame: Michel Lacombe on inks, Nathan Fairbairn on colors, or is Paquette somehow still responsible for my dislike.  Oddly enough, the fact that this story takes place in Japan makes the art fit.  I know, I’ve said I don’t like the art, but for whatever reason it still seems to fit the Japanese cityscapes.  Perhaps a decision was made to do a manga-influenced style while the story is in Japan.  Regardless, I hope issue 3 moves away from this particular look.  I’m all for experimentation, but in this case, I really would prefers something more traditional.

The story itself concludes what was started in issue #1.  Bruce Wayne is in Japan with Selina Kyle and he is looking to recruit the Japanese Batman.  He puts the candidate through a test while also tracking down Death Man, a character from the Batman Manga.  Death Man is an odd character, but as usual, Morrison finds a way to get past the weirdness and make him chilling.  The actual motivations of the killer seem secondary to the theatrics, but that’s been typical for many Batman villains over the decades.

I can’t help but feel Morrison is taking a break, having some fun having just finished bringing Bruce Wayne “back from the dead”.  This might be the calm before the next storm.  While it all seems somewhat light and a bit fluffy from where the Bat-titles have just come, with Morrison there is always the promise of something deeper and more horrifying just around the corner.  It may be another year or two of stories before we get there, but I’m sure it is on its way.

I have one more title from today’s excursion to the comic shop:  Batman Annual 28.  I have not read it, however, because I’m a bit irritated with it.  I had no idea that there was a story that started in the Detective Comics Annual this year, and that this story is concluded in Batman Annual 28.  This has been an irritating trend in comics recently.  At one time you could get a complete story in an annual (sometimes two or three complete stories).  Flipping through 28, I saw that there are two complete back-up stories following the second half of “All The Rage”.  Why couldn’t “All the Rage” just appear in ONE title?  I’m sorry, but if I’m going to put out $4.99 for a comic, I would like it to be complete, or at least feel that way.  The only reason I even bought it was because the comic guy pulled it for me because he thought I might be interested.  I wanted to help support him.  I accomplished this, so I guess I can say something good about the comic.

And apparently the cover to part 1 forms a bigger picture when combined with part 2. Well worth your $5.

Batman: The Dark Knight #1

When I made my list for 2011, I decided to “Write reviews for every book I read, movie I go to, and show I watch.” In hindsight, I’m not sure whether or not I intended to review every book I read.  By this, I mean comics.  I don’t buy too many comics.  I regularly purchase Batman, Batman and Robin, and just started with Batman, Inc.  My wife gets the Green Lantern titles.   But this week, I had some extra money, so I picked up Batman: The Dark Knight #1.  I was excited about this story for two reasons.  First, well, it’s Batman.  Second, it is by David Finch.  This means he wrote AND illustrated the book.  I’ve enjoyed David Finch ever since I first saw his work on a few Ultimate X-Men stories back when Brian Bendis was on the title.  They later collaborated on The New Avengers when Bendis began his bid to be the new Stan Lee by setting pretty much all of Marvel’s storylines into the next decade.  I didn’t follow things very long.  I stopped reading Marvel for two reasons.  First, I couldn’t afford to follow all the Grant Morrison stuff at DC AND keep getting Marvel titles (Daredevil in particular).  Second, The Amazing Spider-Man #545.

This is what I expected.

Anyway, getting back to Batman before I start my Spider-Man rant, Grant Morrison has been doing some wonderful stuff with Batman.  He has shaken up the core of what the title is, and rebuilt it for a new era where international terrorism makes the news more often than the crimes the Caped Crusader has traditionally fought.  This new era was set forth in Batman: The Return, in which Bruce Wayne began to investigate international crime organizations while recruiting people to become “Batman” in other countries.  Basically, Bruce Wayne is franchising Batman.  David Finch provided the art for this story, and it was beautifully dark and gritty.  I went in to The Dark Knight #1 expecting the same thing.

I was disappointed.

Finch turns in his normal art, which I said before that I like (and still do), but I was hoping

This is what I got. Not bad, just unexpected.

for something similar to The Return.  Art aside, the story was somewhat underwhelming for me.  Having recently revisited Grant Morrison’s entire run on the Batman titles, The Dark Knight seems so…pedestrian.  Bruce Wayne is investigating the disappearance of Gotham socialite Dawn Golden, a friend (and later ex-lover) who he knew before his parents were murdered.  Bruce has put aside his international excursions to investigate her disappearance.  For whatever reason, he deems this case worth his attention rather than turn it over to Dick Grayson, who is the current Batman for Gotham City.

Each Batman title seems to be covering a different focus.  Batman, Inc. is Bruce Wayne’s international Batman stories.  Batman is Dick Grayson as Batman in Gotham.  Batman and Robin continues with Dick Grayson as Batman joined by Damien Wayne as Robin.  Detective Comics is Dick Grayson acting more as the detective rather than the superhero. Part of me wonders if The Dark Knight is meant to be the title with Bruce Wayne as Batman in Gotham.  Looking over the above list, it would seem that the majority of the titles focus on Grayson, so a Bruce Wayne title is needed.  Since there was a successful movie in recent history titled The Dark Knight, what better way to capitalize on interest in Bruce Wayne and Batman than to use the same title for a comic.  Will this comic have strong ties to the Morrison-driven continuity?  Only time will tell.  At $3.99 per issue, however, I’m not sure I’ll stick around to find out.

You Are A Winner! Maybe!

“When everyone is super, then no one will be.”–Syndrome from “The Incredibles”

I work at a second-hand bookstore. We look at hundreds of used books each week. These books range from popular to obscure, the profound to the amusing. Sometimes the amusing nature of books is quite unintentional. Since our store deals primarily in Christian books, there are some great topics. Naturally we have the long-debated controversies about Christianity and rock music, whether or not Christians should drink alcohol, and the ever-popular ‘Are Catholics REALLY Christians?’ The subjects and debates contained in these books are often coming from well-meaning people, sometimes manipulative self-righteous people. But yesterday we got in a great book about self-empowerment and sperm.

Yes, you read that correctly. Now I wish to clarify that I don’t believe this book has a Christian bent to it. I think it is merely a part of the wide-ranging self help moment. But the premise of this book is that you are inherently a winner, a special person, just because your sperm was the one that got through. Since your sperm fertilized the egg oh so long ago, you are naturally a success story. Remember your roots.

As I pondered this concept, I became aware of one inherent flaw: every person who ever lived also won. Sure, I’m a winner because my initial source was awesome, but everyone else I meet is also a winner. How do I brag about this? How do I rub it in? I can’t very well turn to someone and say, “You are a LOSER! You didn’t make it and I am AWESOME! You should be more like me!” The very fact that this person exists invalidates my pride and arrogance.

I’m a winner.

And so is everyone else.

The Lost Art of Writing Letters

First off, I did a guest column on the Popgun Chaos blog.  Be sure to check out the other columns on the site because they are quite good.


Do people write letters anymore?

My wife and I will be moving soon, and to help expedite the process, I was trying to decide which books to keep and which to sell.  One of the items in question was a set of The Letters of C.S. Lewis.  Lewis is one of my favorite authors, but the thought of reading letters seemed a bit uninteresting to me.  Sure, I’ve read great quotes from Lewis that appeared in letters, but as I began reading them (some written as far back as his childhood) I couldn’t quite see the point.  Childhood letters probably have limited appeal, primarily to the parents.  But, to give the book a fair hearing, I skipped to his college years.  It was interesting to read discussions on books he had read or refuting Christian thoughts (for at this point, Lewis was still an atheist).  But the letters became compelling when I got to the war years, specifically World War I.

In general, I know little about The War to End All Wars (quite an ironic misnomer).  Yes, I know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to nations honoring treaties of war like the falling of dominos.  I also know that much of the fighting was done via trench warfare.  Apart from one or two other items, that really does exhaust my knowledge.  World War II was usually more interesting, although I think you could make a case that they were really the same war with a brief intermission.  I’m digressing.

C.S. Lewis served in World War I in the Somerset Light Infantry.  He was deployed on the front in the Somme Valley.  Lewis stayed in touch with his father and his friends during this time and wrote about his experiences.  In a letter to his father, dated 4 January 1918:

“You will be anxious to hear my first impressions of trench life.  This is a very quiet part of the line and the dug outs are very much more comfortable than one imagines at home.  They are very deep, you go down to them by a shaft of about 20 steps: they have wire bunks where a man can sleep quite snugly, and brasiers for warmth and cooking.  Indeed, the chief discomfort is that they tend to get too hot, while of course the bad air makes one rather headachy.  I had quite a pleasant time, and was only once in a situation of unusual danger, owing to a shell falling near the latrines while I was using them.”

-Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. 1              HarperCollins 2004

Letters and diaries such as this are invaluable to historians and scholars.  The amount of physical detail and personal commentary helps us learn about the man and the experiences.  I have often wondered, in a society where text messages and Twitter become more common forms of communication, are we losing something of our heritage.  Are we losing the ability to write as Lewis did, relating our experiences in a meaningful, understandable way?

It was announced this year that the Library of Congress is going to archive Twitter.  This is a massive acknowledgement of the state of technology in our nation.  Preserving this form of communication gives massive insight into who we are as a people.  Even if there is nothing of worth in the Tweets, the very fact that we archive it is information upon which a sketch can be made.  Unfortunately, my fear is that we will be dismissed as a shallow generation.  Perhaps that would be an accurate analysis.

The amount of information we are providing for future historians is massive, perhaps even insurmountable.  But even with all this progress in leaving information and clues to our present identity, I wonder once more if “the letter” will pass away.  Will we find “The Collected Letters of _____”?  Tweets are informative, but they are mere soundbites compared to a letter.  Soundbites can be easily misused and mask true feelings and ideas. These are most-likely unfounded fears, but I still fear the loss of a great art, the very art of correspondence.

Old Earth Vs. Young Earth

So here is one of my problems with most young earth/universe theories:  certain evidence does not seem to be in their favor.  It isn’t so much the young earth that I have an issue with.  There are some interesting theories that offer workable explanations for why the earth looks old.  Quite possibly, the biggest evidence against them at this point are certain methods of dating which have grown more refined.  Young-earth advocates have criticized radioactive dating and perhaps rightly so.  However other effective dating methods have developed, methods that present greater accuracy.  (Rubidium-strontium dating is, at this point, a more accurate method of dating extremely old rocks than previously used methods such as carbon dating.)

But the evidence of an old universe is much more compelling.  Triangulation against points in the sky is one method of determining distances celestial bodies lie from one another.  Measuring observable movements of the celestial bodies is another.  Then there is the problem of the speed of light.  Knowing the distances of the stars and galaxies from us, we can calculate how long it took the light to reach us.  These calculations lead to billions of years.  It is much more difficult to argue that our preconceived worldviews are causing us to interpret the math incorrectly.

So where does this lead the young creationist?  Certainly the existence of an old universe doesn’t demand the existence of an old earth, but if we can be wrong about one, we can be wrong about the other.

I have come to believe that the Bible and science can be harmonized so long as we understand we approach both subjects with preconceived notions (usually based in a cultural bias) and do our best not to make either the Bible or science say something they do not say.  Vern Poythress’ Redeeming Science has been extremely valuable to me in this.

Poythress is a professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary and he has three loves:  science, math, and God.  He loves the order and rationality of science and math and believes these attributes reflect God’s order and rationality.  He also seems to believe that both creation scientists and naturalists, in their zeal to prove their particular a priori assumptions about the nature of existence, tend to make Genesis 1 and scientific data say things that neither says with certainty.  Starting from our own a priori assumption, if the Bible is true and nature is a form of God’s revelation of Himself, then any contradiction between the Bible and science implies that we are either misinterpreting the Bible or misinterpreting scientific data.  The controversy with Galileo and heliocentrism (Earth orbits Sun) versus geocentrism (celestial bodies orbit Earth) is a much-vaunted, over-used example of both. I don’t mean to indicate that the Roman Catholic church didn’t make some mistakes in the Galileo incident, but the issue was more complicated than the religion vs. science view that most people have regarding the incident.  People within the church (especially in some of the Jesuit community) had begun theorizing that the Ptolemaic (fixed earth) system was incorrect.  While many in the scientific community agreed with Galileo, the switch from geocentrism to heliocentrism came as an affront to the scientific knowledge at the time, which was largely based on the ideas of Aristotle.  Since this is a tangent I don’t wish to go on at the moment, see “What Really Happened with Galileo and Darwin”, an excerpt from John Polkinghorn’s book Science and Theology  for a brief discussion on this topic.

Ultimately, even Galileo was only partially correct.  While the Earth is not a fixed point and it does indeed revolve around the sun, the sun itself is NOT a fixed point either, which runs contrary to his theory.  The Milky Way Galaxy itself rotates.  Galileo’s theories had to be updated once the scientific tools to measure such things had developed.  This is a key distinction regarding science:  it is not static.  It can be refined in detail or completely re-written given exposure to the right data.  (Quantum physics is an area where much enthusiastic study is being done that could usher in a new shift.)  Thus it is sometimes unwise for scientists to ascribe to any theory the designation of ‘ultimate explanation’ for why or how something is.  It could eventually be overturned.  Likewise, it is unwise for creation scientists to latch on to a theory that “proves” God did things a certain way, thus upholding a specific view of Genesis 1.  If that theory is debunked, you have hurt not only your own reputation, but possibly caused disillusionment to those who cited you without studying or following the evidence themselves.  I believe that it can be dangerous to place too high a significance on the creation account for this reason.  Certainly it is important, but again, we shouldn’t read more into it than is necessary.

How should we then approach the creation account?  Much of these views will be paraphrases of ideas from Poythress’ Redeeming Science.  Genesis 1 has two main purposes.  The first is to establish God as the sole creator of all, and the second is the establishment of a pattern of work and rest, the model of the Sabbath and natural rhythms.  Genesis 1 is not a scientific text.  Quite the contrary, I would say it is deliberately obscure for two main reasons.  First, it was written to counter pagan, polytheistic creation stories.  Genesis 1 is unique in its monotheism, and it deliberately plays on the creation myths of Babylon and other near east peoples.  These myths typically involved the earth being fashioned from the corpse of one of the gods.  Humans were typically created to serve these gods.  Genesis 1 is largely the antithesis of these creation myths because it tells that humans were created due to God’s providential generosity, rather than for selfish servitude, and that suffering and disorder is from humanity’s fallen, rebellious nature, not due to quarrelling gods.  Even in our modern, “enlightened” age, we can have little difficulty understanding and agreeing with these concepts.  We no longer intellectually believe in multiple gods (in the West), and even atheists would ascribe human suffering to humans, not to petty, vengeful gods.  Therefore, this story is attempting to illustrate a truth about who we are and about our relationship to God.

The second reason Genesis 1 is deliberately obscure is so it is easy to understand regardless of culture.  It is deliberately simplistic.  Genesis 1 uses phenomenal language, which means it describes how an event is perceived, not necessarily the exact nature of the event. Examples of phenomenal language are with the words sunrise and sunset.  We know that this is a geocentric observation.  At dawn, the sun lifts above the horizon, then at dusk it moves below the horizon.  For someone who lacks the scientific knowledge or language to describe something different, sunrise and sunset have great meaning and are unambiguous.  We now know that the earth orbits the sun and the earth also rotates on its own axis, which is the reality of the situation, but introducing this concept to a culture that lacks certain scientific advancements would result in misunderstanding and communication failure.  The brilliance of the Genesis account is that it transcends cultural understanding.  It uses phenomenal language that is universally accessible.  Why else would it be debated in the West thousands of years after being written if it wasn’t so approachable.  Less scientifically advanced cultures can still understand the text.  They can see and perceive the text in the same way the original readers and hearers understood it.  It is truly a timeless story.

Where does all this stand with science?  It certainly allows us more leeway in our interpretation.  However, further commentary form the Bible itself adds another item for consideration.  The Sabbath is modeled on God’s pattern of creation.  So do we interpret the days in Genesis 1 as literal, 24-hour days or as symbolic days?  There are many theories presented by science-minded believers.  The two most interesting (to me) are the 24-hour day theory and the analogous theory.

The 24-hour day theory is pretty much how it sounds.  By itself, however, it doesn’t take into account the apparent age of the universe and earth.  If everything was created within six 24-hour days, why does everything look so old?  This is usually combined with the mature creation theory, which states that God created everything with the appearance of age.  I’m not sure I entirely like this theory, because it would seem to indicate a reality that is partially illusory.  We would have every evidence of The Big Bang, of a universe aged billions of years and an earth aged millions of years, yet it wouldn’t be true because it just looks that way.  I have trouble with a concept that says you can’t follow the evidence because the evidence reflects a reality that does not exist.  This opens the door to further doubt about what can and cannot be observed and the very nature of reliable evidence, a concept that would even seem to undermine the Christian field of apologetics. It seems partially deceptive.  I would much more readily believe in a young earth that achieved an aged look via cataclysmic events (such as volcanic activity or the Genesis flood) than an artificially “aged” creation.  But I fully acknowledge that my personal comfort with a theory is no sort of standard by which to judge its truth or worth.

The analogous day theory posits that the days are not literal 24-hour days.  In truth, the Hebrew word for ‘day’ (yom) in this text has at least two distinct meanings, one of which is 24 hours, the other is “a vague period of general time”. (from The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 1980. Moody Press)  Analogous day theory says that the days are not identical to man’s days (24 hours) but analogous to them. God set a pattern of work and rest that was to be emulated by man.  Each yom therefore designates the amount of time that each act of creation took.  This also takes in to account that the first three days of creation would have had no objective, external measurement of time.  We tend to measure time by the movement of the heavenly bodies, the creation of which didn’t happen until day four.  Analogous day theory also retains the chronological progression of Genesis 1.  What is also fascinating is that this chronological arrangement roughly corresponds to the order mainstream science says various aspects of our planet came in to being.  I personally like the theory, but I understand it is only a theory.  It is a hard reality that Genesis 1 lacks the scientific detail to study and evaluate it, but if it did, it would have remained incomprehensible to its original audience and many who approach it even to this day.

Why is this debate necessary?  Certainly there are those in the scientific community who wish to disprove Genesis 1 (and believe they have) because they feel Christianity and religion in general creates an anti-science bias and prevents mankind from attaining potential by being bogged down and concerned with religious concepts and warmongering against opposing beliefs.  But this attitude is nothing new.  It is not unique to the 21st century, so why the urgency to debunk such beliefs now?  I’m not sure I have an answer to either question (although I do have a lot of speculation, much of which is unflattering to both sides and possibly more than a little unfounded).  It can be a fun, intellectual debate when separated from the passion and vitriol.  This debate has been going on for centuries, however, a debate between science, philosophy, and theology with each trying to assert ultimate authority, an ultimate answer.  In fact, there are those in science who would like to discover a comprehensive, all-encompassing theory (quantum mechanics again coming in to play).  But despite lasting centuries, the debate continues.  We must continue to attempt our own harmonization of the various schools of thought (and as Christians, allow our standard of analysis to be scripture and be clear what it really does and does not say).  The debate will continue, likely long after we are gone.  As Poythress says with dry understatement, “the discussions continue among theologians with no signs of increasing agreement.”