Saturday, August 22, 2009

The World’s Nerdiest Bike Thief

Anyone who has followed this blog for a few months or heard[1] me preach more than, say, twice, knows I really enjoy It is a perfect confluence of nerdy science/math/code humor and nerdy pop subculture references. I only ‘get it’ about 70% of the time, with ~10% failure due to not understanding the science and the other ~20% because I missed the cultural reference.[2] Anyway, just a really good example of how the web created pockets of niche excellence that were not previously sustainable.

So you can imagine my excitement when I came up with an idea for an xkcd comic. It fit the criteria. Nerdy, academic, legitimately amusing[3]. But I was disappointed to learn that he does not accept idea submissions. So here it is. My xkcd submission if xkcd accepted submissions.

The World’s Nerdiest Bike Thief
Feel free to propose a tool tip in the comments.

This post was written while listening to The Dear Hunter channel on Pandora.
[1] I suppose hearing me preach would not be enough to appreciate the extent to which I make use of visual gags…but I have thoughts of the homiletic use of visual humor. Offbeat, single pane comics are preferable. Otherwise they take too long to play out. Hence my preference for getting my visual gags at xkcd, toothpastefordinner, or graphjam. I keep a folder of the best of these and review it periodically to see if there is something promising for an upcoming topic.
[2] You can read xkcd for a while before you realize that each one has a second punch line in the form of a ‘tool tip’ (if you hold your cursor over the image). Sometimes this will give a hint to the reference and, suddenly, the comic is hilarious.
[3] It should be noted, that if xkcd was to base a comic on an idea I submitted, I would not hesitate to list it on the 'publications' section of my CV.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stories the Bible Doesn’t Tell: The Non-Normative Nature of Normative Narrative

MIT brain scientist Jeremy Wolfe, talks[1] about a fortunate mistake our brains make. When reconstructing the past we actually have very few fixed points of reference and interpolate between them using our imagination. Studies have shown that this causes us to project our current feelings about the event into our historical experience. The problem our brain is solving is that information is ‘expensive’ to store; so we get away with storing less data by having complicated imaginative ‘reconstituional’ software that simulates the past[2] based on our relatively limited points of reference. Therefore, much of what we ‘remember’ is not actually composed of memories, but of imaginative ‘simulations’ based on relatively few actual recollections.

I think this is analogous to one of the biggest problems we have with reading and interpreting narrative. In fiction, it is important not to waste space with mundane details. Stories are told with relatively few points of reference.[3] This is why no one goes to the bathroom in movies and one of the rules of writing fiction is to never describe the experience of waking up, because that is something everyone does and does not tend to move the story forward. These tend to be helpful conventions, limiting stories to the interesting parts and sparing the reader thousands of pages of tedious description.

Normative Non-Fictional Narrative

However, for what I will call, normative non-fictional narrative[4], this is a problem. When we read the Book of Acts, for example, we remember the miracle at the pool, Peter’s great sermon, Paul’s conversion…the dramatic moments. And then, when we compare them to our sad lives, we can feel diminished…disappointed in ourselves and underwhelmed by the acts of God in our generation. There appears to be an empirical disconnect between the dynamic works of God on the pages of Scripture and the repetitive monotony of our daily lives.

But the big mistake we make in interpreting biblical narrative is to read it without respect to genre. Genre gets a lot of attention in hermeneutics, and rightly so, but there is an interpretively important genre that never seems to get mentioned…the highlight reel.[5]

What Biblical narrative necessarily omits[6] is the tedium. The unremarkable MONTHS that passed on the road between Antioch and Ephesus. The lonely hours of chasing elusive sleep on some undulating surface that was as close to horizontal as could be found. The 30 years that the God of the universe spent working as a carpenter. The 40 years Moses spent tending sheep. The 12 years Paul spent quietly in Antioch after his conversion. The 18 years of diapers, spit up, getting out of bed and going to work, that elapsed between Philip’s missionary adventure and his hosting of Paul. These events, and others like them, which make up the vast majority of salvation history, get less than a sentence apiece and mainly reside in the white space of your Bible.[7]

Philip’s Normative Narrative

Philip is the most interesting human character in the book of Acts, as far as I am concerned. He was the first to realize that the gospel was for the Gentiles. He was a multi-cultural pioneer. He was young, adventurous, brash, spiritually sensitive, and slightly impetuous. Acts 8 describes him performing miracles, preaching and healing the sick in Samaria without regard to the bitter racial hatred that should have kept him far away from ‘those people.’ He lived exciting months as a gospel pioneer from city to city; going on adventures and living in the daily the power of God. But the last we hear from him in Acts 8:40 is in Caesarea. He simply disappears from the story. Most people extrapolate from his early adventures and figure he spent his life doing crazy stuff for God in lands so distant that the stories simply didn’t make it back to Luke, due to their shear remoteness. But that is not what happened.

We meet Philip again 20 years after his adventures, when he hosted Paul (Acts 21) and are told that he has four remarkable daughters between the ages of 14 and 18[8]. FF Bruce essentially says, ‘Do the math…Philip met a girl and it put an end to his missional gallivanting.’ The story the Bible doesn’t tell is that the fiery young Philip almost certainly met a girl in Caesarea and live 20 faithful years as a generous, committed, active servant to his local church and community…and as an exceptional father. These are good strong years…the kind of years that the kingdom of God is built out of…the kind of years he should be proud of…the kind of years we could be proud of…but not the kind that ‘make the Bible.’ And, this is what is so widely misunderstood. The fact that we don’t hear the story of these years is evidence that they are more, not less, normative.

Telling the Stories the Bible Doesn’t Tell

But preachers tend to be enamored with Peter and Paul.[9] As full time ministers, they see Peter and Paul as the vocational role models in the Scriptures. And so, they tend to prepare and preach sermons for other full time Christian workers forgetting that they deliver them to churches full of people who are not. What they generally fail to recognize (or at least articulate) that the stories of the Bible are in the Bible, specifically because they are non-normative. Hero stories need to be de-centered in order to instruct the rest of us. The Bible could not do this without becoming overly long and tedious. The responsibility falls on the exegete.

Actually, one of the really interesting things about Acts is that it self consciously undermines the potential for hero worship or cults of personality. Peter himself simply disappears from the story after chapter 15. The story of God’s fledgling church is bigger than any individual. If Acts is the story of remarkable individuals, than most of us will, definitionally[10], be left deflated. We might find in intriguing but can not find it helpful or normative. But if it is the story of God building a community of faithful individuals who got up each day and went to work so they would have money to give to the poor…who raised kids in the faith…who were open with their neighbors and coworkers about the work of God in their lives…who shared their houses with other recently converted (and probably quite annoying[11]) individuals from a variety of unsavory backgrounds…it becomes a story that has the power to inspire and instruct the rest of us. It is incumbent upon exegetes to transcend their own ministerial interest in the text to find the normative narrative for the rest of us.

And that is just Acts. I would love to read a really tedious Bible book called ‘Moses: The Midian Years,’ documenting the 40 years of sheep herding in the desert that God used to form him into the charismatic leader and liberator that we admire. It turns out that boredom is one of the tools that God uses to shape his people. How dramatically does that change the way we look at ‘the Christian life’?

The Bible is textually parsimonious by necessity. Because of that, some of the normative narrative between its covers is in the stories it does not fully tell. The preacher has time to linger where the text does not[12]. By telling the tedious tales of Paul’s 12 years of preparation or Moses’ 40 years of sheep herding or Philip’s 20 years of faithful parenting, the dramatic stories of the text come into focus as the special, episodic, interventions of Yahweh who, on the whole, prefers some measure of hiddeness. The text comes into line with our experience of Him[13]. It becomes the normative story of a people of faith and faithfulness.

This post was written while listening to Sam's Town by the Killers

[2] Similarly, psychological studies have demonstrated that we use our imagination to fill out our predictions of the future with the emotional furniture of our present. This, he contends, with Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, is why we are so bad at predicting what will make us happy. But that is another post.
[3] With 24 being the obvious counter example. Though even 24 gets away from mundane detail by switching between parallel story lines and somehow getting Jack Bauer across LA in 20 minutes during peak traffic.
[4] By normative non-fiction I am referring to any body of literature that someone would try to model their own life after. There are a few different examples. But, if you have read this blog before, you will not be surprised to know that I am thinking of the narrative portions of the Bible.
[5] I recently attended a conference on ecosystem restoration. One of the speakers essentially said, “Many of you wish you were getting the kind of money budgeted for the everglades. Well, let me tell you, so does the everglades.” I feel like there is a sense in which people wish their lives were always like those of the characters of the Bible, and my response is, so do the characters of the Bible. With the exception of the life of Jesus himself (the events of which we are told would fill countless books) a detailed account of the life of any Biblical character would likely be relatively tedious.
[6] Because, let’s face it, it is a relatively longish book with a fair number of nap inducing portions as is.
[7] Recognizing that the Bible is authoritative yet incomplete is also the answer to a number of apologetic questions. Consider the following take by Augustine in the City of God: “It may seem incredible that a city should have been built by one man at a time when there were apparently only four men in existence on earth…But those who are worried by this have given too little consideration to the fact that the writer of this sacred history had no need to mention by name all the people who may then have existed.”
[8] The text actually says 4 daughters but the Greek word is woman of marriageable age, meaning that for the youngest to be of marriageable age, the oldest would have to have been born shortly after his arrival in Caesarea (also from Bruce).
[9] This post had a number of working titles including the 2 I used and “Enough with Paul Already: De-Centering Acts for the Church’s Role Players”
[10] Because, as the Incredibles insightfully established, if everyone is special, no one is.
[11] Seriously, could you imagine joining one of the early small groups in Corinth with slaves and temple prostitutes and sailors and some untrained small group leader who just had a couple of letters from Paul to work off of. We romanticize these narratives to our detriment.
[12] Obviously, preaching should focus on the main point of the text. But what I am arguing is that to understand the text theologically and to extract compelling, appropriate applications for a lay audience, the temporal context has to be considered in addition to the historical-grammatical context.
[13] In a recent conversation with a young man I am mentoring I suggested that if I were to experience 5 legitimate, unequivocal miracles in my life (beyond the standard workings of God in birth, rebirth and sanctification) I would consider it a lot. That was a crass extrapolation (I have been a Christian for 15 years and have experienced 1) but gets at what I believe a careful reading of the scriptural narratives tell us. God prefers to work in episodic bursts between long periods of faith and faithfulness. We could call it a sort of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ of divine activity. This, incidentally, is the main point of Lewis’s Prince Caspian which kind of came out in the movie despite the totally unnecessary sexual tension between Susan and Caspian that I am still pissed off about.