Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Superhero Test

I took the Superhero test and much to my surprise I am not after all Batman! This is a major identity crisis for me. I am experiencing profound cognitive dissonance because my blog is called "The Batcave" and my display image is the Dark Knight, and yet I have tested as that irradiated arachnid, that pesky Peter Parker. I am going to need some extended time in the Batcave to sort this out. No - wait...I'm not Batman so where do I go to sort things out? My bedroom at Aunt May's house? Oh pu-lease! That doesn't sound one tenth as cool as "the Batcave." Maybe I can be a new superhero - Spiderbat! Mmmm. maybe not..

You are Spider-Man


Green Lantern
Iron Man
Wonder Woman
The Flash
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Gift of Prophecy

We have been discussing the gift of prophecy in our theology class and a couple of students have raised questions about my approach to the topic. It seem to me that there are some major problems with the contemporary expression of "prophetic utterances," “words of wisdom” and “words of knowledge.” They open up the potential for spiritual abuse and should be approached very cautiously in my opinion. All we need to know has been recorded for us in the Bible. No extra-biblical “prophecy” can ever add to this revelation so why is there a need for these so-called ”prophetic utterances”? If we believe God has some words of counsel to pass on to a fellow believer we should approach them as brother or sister and share it in a natural way, without any high sounding “thus saith the Lord” which claims an authority for ourselves that we do not possess.

It is true that "prophecy," "the word of wisdom," and "the word of knowledge" are spiritual gifts referred to in the Bible. However, in the case of the latter two, there is no other information given to us to explain exactly what those gifts were and how they functioned. Why could the "word of wisdom" not simply be the impartation of wise advice to another believer and the "word of knowledge" something one believer knows and then passes on to another believer for their spiritual help? The typical Pentecostal practice smacks of clairvoyancy to me - "I feel that somebody on this side of the room is having marital problems" or "somebody over here has back pain." In any representative room there would be sure to be more than one person who fits such descriptions.

Prophetic utterances in the early church were given in the absence of a completed New Testament when the church needed to be guided by oral proclamation in a more authoritative way than is true today. I do not need to consult the word of a "prophet" today when I have the New Testament in front of me giving me everything I need to know for life and godliness, and godly pastors and teachers who open up the scriptures in the gathered church. Also we should remember the indwelling Holy Spirit who is our Teacher and Guide. Prophecy was given for the "edification, exhortation, and comfort of the church." I believe all of these things are met through anointed preaching which has the authority of scripture behind it, a more dependable authority than the authority of a "prophet's" personality or his or her limited human perspective.

I don't mean to call into question the "prophetic words" that may have guided any person but for every one that turns out well there is at least one other that does not. For example, some years ago, the pastor in the charismatic church I was attending was secretly engaged in sexual immorality in the counselling room with a series of women in the congregation. At this very time, a well-known Pentecostal pastor with a "prophetic" ministry (I won't disclose his name but if I did you would immediately recognise him) prophesied along these lines (from my memory). "My children I say unto you that this man, your pastor, is my anointed one. He is a good man and there have been rumours and innuendos about his conduct which must stop. Touch not my anointed for he is my chosen one..." etc. (you get the idea). He was "outed" a short time later when one of the women bravely came forward to blow the whistle on him. Now this "prophetic message" could not possibly have been from God. This man spoke not from God but from his own imagination. The Old Testament was very clear on what was to happen to those who said "thus saith the Lord" but really spoke from their own dreams. They were to be taken outside the camp and stoned to death! These days we approach it differently. We give them national prominence, television shows and huge salaries.

It seems to me a safer way to go is to allow God's gifts to flow through us in the ordinary ways of preaching, teaching, counselling and mentoring. This will yield all the guidance that modern day "prophecy" is supposed to bring, but without the attendant problems of claiming to speak infallibly and authoritatively from God things which turn out to be falsehoods. You may not agree with these thoughts but please do not think that they come from any disregard for the Scriptures or any questioning of the genuine ministry of the Holy Spirit. I am simply trying to follow the scriptural command to "test the spirits" and "prove all things."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

La Trobe Graduation

At Ludicrousity's request, here are some photos from my recent graduation at La Trobe University. My thesis was formally finalised in October of last year (after being submitted as far back as March!) but I had to wait until now to shake the Chancellor's hand and get my testamur. (The crimson rosella is known for its bright plumage.)

My doctoral citation.

Here I am with "the gadfly of Australian history," my supervisor John Hirst. Thanks John. Couldn't have done it without you.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Son of a Preacher Man

The Boy Wonder and I went along to see Harley Breen's one man show Son of a Preacher Man in Flinders Lane last Tuesday night. It was crude, rude, irreverent...and very funny. It would be easy for a Christian to be offended at the material but it would be all too easy to rush and in and smugly condemn without asking what truth is being offered here. We need to hear his perspective on why the church doesn't appeal to so many like him who have left the church disillusioned figuring it has nothing to offer. For those who think this show may be just a cathartic exercise in axe-grinding against repressive parenting - think again. It's clear that Harley loves, respects, and admires his parents and that he respects the choices in life they have made, even though he hasn't chosen to make those choices himself. More often than not it is the people in the congregations that his parents served that get the most stick, and if you're a preacher's kid too I'm sure you'll have a bunch of similar stories to tell about the strange people who inhabit the pews of every suburban church.

Harley is at his best when he is sharing funny stories from his childhood - sibling rivalry, puberty, and adolesence all yield their hilarious moments. The slapstick disguised as political comment against the Howard government in the Gummy Bears routine is great. The show is weakest in its middle section when Harley dons the clerical garb and plays the part of a preacher on the take. The effeminate preacher intent only on exploiting people is a wornout cliche. I have no objection to lampooning the clergy as such (we're all fair game) but a more original approach was needed to lift this part of the show beyond the humdrum thing we're used to seeing on TV. It's the real Harley Breen that works best, not the two-dimensional caricature of this all-too easy to deride target.

In the medieval world, the jester was ostensibly for the purposes of entertaining the king and his court. But he also played a subversive role. With skill and craft he could use his humour to point out the vanity or folly of the kings' character or actions, thus turning a mirror on the royal personage. As an innocent child was needed to point out the fact that the emperor had no clothes in Hans Christian Anderson's folk tale, so it was the court fool who often played the role of pointing out the pretensions of royalty. Harley Breen's show turns a mirror on certain attitudes found in the church that are positively unChristian and need to be unmasked and repented of - the idea that Christians are by definition better people than all others (clearly not so), that Christians often show little respect for indigenous cultures and seek only to supplant them and replace them with European "civilization" (often, though by no means always, the case with missionaries), and that Christians can at times be violent toward those of other faiths.

One of Harley's Dad's former parishioners told him that his show was evil and blasphemous and that he was going straight to hell, apparently without seeing the irony that this was a rather "hellish" thing to say to another human being. But there is a difference between blasphemy and criticism. I once rebuked a youth camper for telling a distasteful joke about God and told him that we should be carefuil not to use the Lord's name in vain. Later in the camp he overheard me telling a joke about the church and he decided to rebuke me in turn. I told him there is a difference between mocking God and laughing at the church. It's a healthy thing to be able to laugh at oneself. Harley's show doesn't mock God so much as point out the inconsistencies of professing Christians, which is a different thing altogether.

There's a lot of truth in humour - we have to take it seriously (pun intended). The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard saw the closest proximity between theology and comedy. Comedy sees tragedy from the viewpoint of its resolution, so comedy helps us transcend tragedy by placing it in proper perspective. This is why, for Kierkegaard, humour was the state of consciousness nearest to religion. Some like Harley Breen use humour to resolve the tragedy of the church's behaviour by walking away from it. Others, without denying the tragedy, choose to remain committed to the church, convinced that in its sinfulness it is really only a microcosm of all humanity, but convinced also that in the church (though not exclusively there) God offers his grace to those who need it. I'm reminded of the Docetists of the early church who were willing to accept that Christ was divine but could not accept that he was also human. It is the very humanness of the church, its fallenness, that many people find unacceptable. But the church does not claim to be a perfect society of saints (though admittedly some Christian movements have tried to make that claim.) It is always a "mixed multitide" of people on various stages of the way of Christ. And the Church exists also for those who cannot bring themselves to enter it or who walk away from it. It exists this way not because it is the only place where God is at work, but because Christ has united himself to his followers by calling them his friends, and, corporately, his Bride. It's okay to have a problem with the way the church behaves but if we have a problem with the Bride we do have to take it up with the Bridegroom.

In his final gag Harley tells of how he decided to try being a Buddhist for a day. He knew that according to the tenets of Buddhism he was supposed to respect all sentient beings, including the smallest creatures, so when he stepped on a bug, he grew angry with himself and kicked the dog. Now he felt even worse. Finally he saw a Buddhist monk, and he angrily and violently knocked him to the ground. Then came the punch line - "Well, I guess I'm still a Christian after all." If only the tragedy could be resolved so neatly. If violence or greed or bigotry or selfishness were uniquely Christian traits, we could solve the world's problems by getting rid of (or at least quarantining) all the Christians. But these things are human, not uniquely Christian, traits. The church tries to bear witness to a better way - to the way of Christ. That it does so inconsistently only shows that it is fully human. In the end, God is speaking both through and to the Son of a Preacher Man - for those who have ears to hear.

The Theology of the Superheroes I: The Incredible Hulk

Before Ang Lee made gay cowboy movies he made such chop-socky delights as Wo Hu Cang Long (that's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to most of you), and the much misunderstood and maligned Hulk. A lot of reviewers canned this movie as being either too long, not true enough to the original Marvel character, or too filled with pop psychology for its own good. Empire even had an article in a recent issue entitled "Hulk: What Went Wrong?" Well, I loved the movie, primarily because it captured for me most of the key themes of the Silver Age Hulk comics I enjoyed as a kid and still enjoy reading. (Like Hulk #120 shown further down in this entry which I recently bought on eBay). There was the setting in the American South-West, a gruff General Thunderbolt Ross, overly protective but at the same time distant from his beautiful daughter Betty, who alone could pacify the Hulk, attempts to contain the Hulk (from which of course he spectacularly escapes), and lots of tossing around of tanks and generally destructive mayhem. Even the updates were true to the spirit, if not the period, of the 60s comic. There were still gamma rays involved but the experiments were updated from nuclear testing to nanomed technology (and they still managed a mushroom cloud in a flashback sequence).

A lot of people complained about the CGI Hulk. But, hey how exactly do you depict ol' green skin accurately? A guy in a rubber suit? It certainly looked better to me than Lou Ferrigno (at left) jumping around in purple shorts in the TV series. Then there was all the pop psychology and the cosmic sequence at the end when Bruce's father David morphed into this weird creature in a final slugout with his son Bruce/Hulk. If you read a Silver Age Marvel comic however you find both these elements are quite common - after all it was Marvel who reinvented comics by focusing on the inner demons of their characters who, like us, were real people with real problems. As for far-fetched cosmic battle sequences, in which impossible to believe pseudo-science thinly explained the most way out happenings, these were in every issue of The Incredible Hulk. Listen naysayers, Ang Lee got it right! By the way, the Hulk himself agrees with me, according to his piece in The Onion, "Why No One Want Make Hulk2?"

Stan Lee says that when he and Jack Kirby invented the Hulk in 1962 he had two literary characters in mind - the monster from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson's story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is created by science (Frankenstein) but he can't control his transformation from mild mannered research scientist Bruce Banner into he who "smash puny humans" (Mr. Hyde). Hulk also serves as an interesting metaphor for the sinful nature. There is something inside of us which we can't control, something that has infected our nature, not something we were created with but the result of something having gone wrong in our creator's design. As hard as Bruce Banner tries to control his hideous transformation it lies beyond his ability to eliminate. "Don't make me angry," he warns, "you won't like me when I'm angry!" For a while there was an articulate Hulk who retained all of the intellectual powers of Bruce Banner. Fans argued back and forth over whether they preferred this Hulk or the one who said things like "Hulk smash!" and "Why puny humans hate Hulk?" or simply "Aaaarrrrggghhh!" The following letter is a good example of how intellectualized comic books became in the 1960's. It comes from a 357-member strong "Hulk Cult" at the University of Syracuse, New York, and was published on the letters page of Tales to Astonish #74 (Dec. 1965). "You have just ended the most prolific era in American literature by giving the Hulk a human brain...By inculcating a rational mind into Hulk's primordial psyche, you caused the downfall of Hulk's entire reason d etre. Your recent issue can be termed a resounding victory of Schopenhauer's will to live over the forces of human nature...What you have done is merely desecrate one of the most forceful genres in modern art - the mindless Hulk. Shame, shame, that's as bad as calling Spinoza a pragmatist...We are even considering switching our loyalties to John Paul Sartre..."

In terms of the metaphor I'm proposing both dumb Hulk and articulate Hulk are appropriate incarnations. Our sinful impulses can be blind, irrational, instinctive and overtly violent. On the other hand they can be wily, crafty, clever, and sophisticated. There is only one way to reach Hulk and to tame his wild and destructive impulses. The love of Betty Ross is all that can reach him. What US government tanks cannot do; what no supervillain has been able to defeat; what no superhero who has tried to take the Hulk down has been able to achieve (most often attempted by the Fantastic Four's Thing), is achieved by the influence of love. So it is with us - the love of God alone can heal our "Hulkiness," can tame the savage breast and restore us to the state our creator intended for us. Only the grace of God can conquer the beast within us all.

Here is a close up of the Eric Bana CGI Hulk, which is actually a composite of the faces of Bana, Ang Lee, and Jennifer Connelly who played Betty Ross in the film. One of the best Hulk sites is The Hulk Library. By the way the Hulk has his own blog. Check it out!

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