Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Soundbite Christianity

I'm noticing an alarming trend in many churches today. Maybe the issue has always been around, or maybe I'm just more aware of it nowadays, but I'm seeing a progressive increase in what I call "soundbite Christianity".

What I mean by this is that I will often see people quoting a verse out of the Bible (sometimes completely out of context) but they won't spend the time to actually see where in the Bible the verse comes from. Nor will they take the time to read through the Bible book by book to see what it says as a whole. As a result, I've lost track of the times I've seen people rehash what another preacher has said only to say something different and contradictory the next week because they heard yet another online sermon by someone else.

I'm not sure what the root causes of this issue are, but I'm sure part of the blame can be placed on our increasingly technologically based culture and our continued bombardment by all types of media. The problem with the all the messages is that many of them are either advertisements or a rehashing of what someone else has said. In some cases, it's just noise, and it is getting more difficult to sort out the truth from the noise. Add to this a general increase in "busyness" in our culture, and a general, long term tiredness seems to set in. As a result, it's easier to just repeat what someone else has said rather than work things through on your own.

That said, we are also in an unprecendented era of communication. We can communicate all the way around the world in less than a second, have access to all sorts of video and audio online, etc. Along with that are ample resources to help someone along in their Bible studies, including numerous reference books, Bible study books, audio and video versions of the Bible, etc.

Yet soundbite Christianity (and along with it, Biblical illiteracy) still seems to be increasing.

In some cases, Bible studies that are focused on Scriptural books rather than the Bible itself add to this trend. Now don't get me wrong, there are many sound books out there that are great for increasing your understanding of the Word, how to apply it, etc. Those can be great starting points. But at some point, a believer needs to sit down with the Bible itself and read it on its own terms.

But what about many churches nowadays that read an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and then a few verses out of a Gospel every Sunday? Isn't that a good starting point?


The sad fact is, those are the only pieces of Scripture most believers hear or read all week long. In many denominations the lectionary system is still in widespread use, and it either revolves on a one or a three year cycle. It's covers a decent amount of basic ground, but it's surprising how much information gets left out.

Many times I've also seen the weekly readings turned into soundbites. For example, a few weeks ago I noticed that the New Testament reading was taken from Acts 6-7. The only problem was large portions were skipped over in the reading. We read about how Stephen was chosen and prayed over. Then the reading skipped down to where he was stoned and Paul (Saul) stood by and watched. Completely removed from the reading was Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin and the message within it. In the end, it left several people confused as to why Stephen was actually stoned. I subsequently pulled out a Bible and explained to those gathered about the missing information in the readings.

Other times I've seen whole verses selectively dropped out of a Psalm. Very strange.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and bash on the lectionary system. In some skilled and gifted preacher's hands, there have been some amazing sermons given. The system has also been around for centuries, for what it is worth. But the sad part is that it is the same readings every year (or three years). And it is repeated over and over and over...

What Gets Lost

If our only exposure to the Word comes in soundbites, many things get lost.

Context gets lost. Meaning gets lost and replaced by the mood of the day. The interconnections between the books and verses of the Bible (via symbolism, quotations, fufilled prophecy, etc.) get distorted or go missing altogether.

Know what else suffers? Discernment. Our own understanding of God's character suffers. Your peace of mind suffers. Our one-on-one time with the Lord suffers. I find it funny that I know people who can spend hours reading 800 page novels/non-fiction books, but won't give up ten minutes of their day to read a single chapter out of the Bible on an even semi-regular basis. It's sad, but an ever increasing reality.

I know for many years I put off reading the Bible all the way through. I read a few books out of it, and some of those I read multiple times. Eventually, however, God led me off of the fence and I came to realize how foolish it was to have procrastinated on such a subject for so long. I've also come to realize that despite multiple readings, I'll never get to the bottom of the Word.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Description Lists

Here is a technique I often use when I get stuck writing a scene.

Sometimes if you have problems visualizing a scene or a setting in your mind (or in some cases an object), those issues will appear on the page, too. Many times in the rough draft stage this will manifest itself as a lack of detail, or maybe just vague details when describing or setting the scene.

Unfortunately, if you are having difficulty visualizing a scene, chances are your readers will have the same problem. In fiction, its important to immerse your reader in the story by drawing on multiple senses...but if the details are not sharp enough, then you run the risk of disengaging your reader early on.

For example, if you were to write a description of a room, what details would you include? It's easy to describe a room as being spacious but full of furniture. But everybody has a different definition of the words "spacious" and "full of furniture". It may be engaging on some level, but if in a subsequent sentence you state that the room the main character frequently trips over the sofa, does that mean he is clumsy, or that the sofa takes up most of the room?

Let's take it a step further.

Let's describe the room as being as having a vaulted ceiling. Let's say it contains it contains a large sofa, two end tables, a television, a piano, a floor lamp, and a wandering cat.

That's better...but it's still not engaging enough.

So what's the solution?

If possible, go to the place you want to describe in a scene or a novel (or short story, etc.). Or, if you need more concrete details about an object, put that object in front of you if possible. In some cases, you may have to use a photograph (or several). In other cases, you may have to find a substitute (more on that below).

Now, grab a notebook or your laptop and write down as many details as you can. Keep in mind that many of these details may or may not end up in the finished product. The point is to pull in as many details as possible so that when you do write that particular scene, you'll have an ample pool of information to draw from. These details can be visual, aural, or even involve taste, smell, and touch.
For instance, a subplot in a story I once wrote had a woman painting an outdoors scene. Although I could visualize the process in my mind for the most part (especially what she was painting), I wasn't happy with what I initially wrote in the rough draft. It was okay, but the details didn't "pop" off the page like I wanted them to.

Since I didn't really have the time to travel to a nearby forest (and this was before the days of image search online), I sat in front of a window overlooking a small set of woods. I then proceeded to write down extensive details about those woods and compiled them into a list. I then referred back to that list as I wrote particular scenes. Not every detail was put to use, but it had the remarkable effect of making the scene feel much more alive. I also pulled out a paintbrush to remind myself of things such as the sound of a paintbrush hitting a canvas, etc.

Circling back to our room example, you could compile a list like this (focusing on one object in particular...a mounted fish on the wall):

walleye, driftwood, glass eyes, dusty, shiny, scales, sharp teeth, white belly, brown, gold, painted, white-tipped tail, swimming, fins, smooth

(Now, if you really wanted to go far with this description, you could look up taxidermy to get even more specific.)

Writing these lists also forces you to slow down and really think about the description process in general. In another post, I'll elaborate on the infinite number of ways you can describe an object, and how that can be affected by the characters in the scene and the mood you want to portray. For now, though, I hope you can see how easy it is to compile description lists that may come in handy in many future projects.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No More Coffee

I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine that somehow ended up on the topic of shadow boxes. One of the items he talked about in his shadow box was that of a miniature coffee grinder. He then went on to describe how that coffee grinder represented marriage and more specifically, how the beans that went into the grinder were representative of the different personalities involved in marriage and how God sort of blends them together.

It was a great image...except if I had a shadow box, there would be no coffee grinder.


Because I don't drink coffee anymore.

You see, I used to love coffee. In fact, at my first job, on the first day I discovered it, I drank eight cups in about four hours. (That was a mistake.)

As the years went on, I continued to drink it on a regular basis. I would drink it at home or stop by a Caribou Coffee or a Starbucks to grab the coffee of the day when I was on the run. Good stuff, especially the darker roasts.

But when I started to work on a particular novel manuscript of mine a few years ago, I soon realized it was a project unlike any other. After a few drafts/edits, I began to run into numerous problems just trying to focus/concentrate on the editing process. Eventually, things slowed to a crawl. This dragged on for weeks until I finally lifted the issue up in prayer. I asked God, "What's interfering with my writing?"

I'd like to say I heard or sensed a reply, but none came. So I asked again the next day. About an hour later, as I was in my kitchen and grabbing the handle on the coffee pot, it more or less came to me: it was the coffee.

So I turned the coffee pot off and stopped drinking it for the rest of the day. Keep in mind that I already downed probably a pot of coffee at work earlier in the day, and I put another pot on when I arrived home. Looking back, I had no doubts I was on my way to downing two pots that day.

What I didn't realize is that I would only drink 4-5 more cups of coffee after that. What I also didn't notice until later was that a few days before I prayed that, the coffee at worked began to taste downright nasty. Sure, with free coffee in the breakroom you get a variety of people making it, who dump different amounts of grounds in the filter, etc. But no, this was definitely tasting just strange.

So the following day I went to the downstairs cafeteria and ordered a Starbucks coffee. I knew this would be the end of the disgusting breakroom coffee.

I brought it upstairs and drank maybe half of it. Good grief, I realized...I was losing my taste for this, too. I only had a few more cups after that and well...the last cup made me physically ill.

And you can guess what happened next...suddenly it got much easier to edit and work on my project.

Now here's the catch: a year earlier I tried stopping my coffee drinking on my own. That lasted two weeks and I failed miserably. Hmmm...there seems to be some kind of Biblical pattern developing here...

Is God still in the deliverance business? Definitely.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Crosses in the Old Testament

A few years ago I participated in a Bible study that looked at different forms of musical worship in the Bible. One of the diagrams that was used during the presentation was that of the Tabernacle (the full description of the Tabernacle can be found in Exodus 25-31, and in Exodus 35-40). The interesting thing about the diagram was that if you looked down on the Israelites' encampment around the Tabernacle from the air, the tribes of Israel were laid out in the shape of a cross, with the Tabernacle in the middle. (See Numbers 2.)

From that point on, I kept that image in the back of my mind, especially when it came to researching the details of the various temples in the Bible.

Well, the other week I potentially found yet another cross...but not in relation to a temple. This one was in Numbers 35:1-34, which describes the cities of refuge. Cites of refuge were places in Israel that one could run to in the case of accidental manslaughter.

What caught my attention, though, was Numbers 35:4-5, which describes the layout of the common land around the city of refuge:
The common-land of the cities which you will give the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits. The city shall be in the middle. This shall belong to them as common-land for the cities.
I'm not quite sure what this looks like, but the first verse sounds like the description of a circle. The second sentence, however, seems different (but maybe it is just a larger circle, I don't know). Maybe the east/south/west/north thing is throwing me off, but it sounds like the description of a cross.

Whatever the case...my search will continue for crosses in the Old Testament.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Parting Waters

Did you know that waters are parted four times in the Bible?

I'm sure many are familiar with the scene from the movie the Ten Commandments, where Moses parts the Red Sea with his staff in dramatic fashion. In the Bible, of course, the parting of the Red Sea is found in Exodus 14.

The interesting thing is, though, that it is not the only place where waters are parted in the Bible. Waters are also parted in these three passages: Joshua 3:1 - 4:18, II Kings 2:7-8, and II Kings 2:13-14.

In Joshua 3:14-17, for example, the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land via the Jordan River:
So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
In the II Kings 2:7-8 passage, Elijah and Elisha are also crossing the Jordan River, but in this case Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the waters: 
And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went and stood facing them at a distance, while the two of them stood by the Jordan. Now Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water; and it was divided this way and that, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
Likewise, in II Kings 2:13-14, when Elisha crossed the Jordan, he also rolled up his cloak (well, Elijah's cloak, really) and struck the water:
He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that; and Elisha crossed over.
In addition, in the Joshua passage, it talks about memorial stones being placed near the river to commemorate the crossing. In Joshua 4:4-7 it reads:
Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe; and Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.”
Has anybody gone on an archaelogical search today to find these stones?