Monthly Archives: May 2008 publishes six new poems by Gail Peck

Please visit our new series of poems by Gail Peck, author of a chapbook and a book of poetry; click here.

Six new poems, plus a special address on icons, upcoming at

Soon we’ll be publishing six new poems by Gail Peck on our Web site,, an online project exploring the intersections of religion and culture. You can read another one of Peck’s poems on the Web site of Cave Wall, a journal of poetry and art.

Also, we’ll soon have a new article by one of our most popular authors, Professor Charles Twombly. Read his previous piece, “Humility and Desire for the Other in a Russian Icon,” here.

‘Take every thought captive’ — to something, anything

The distractions of our times certainly don’t help us slow down and consider the presuppositions that underlie our daily thoughts. We don’t consider how we’re thinking, or if we do, we don’t often take it a step further to ask why we’re thinking a certain way.

The mainstream Christian book industry offers little help. Instead of teaching us how to think, how to reflect, how to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), the Christian bookstore shelves offer a never-ending supply of techniques, spiritual recipes, formulas, buzzwords, and forgotten moralisms we urgently need to recover (urgently, or else the publishing house will lose money!). Plus, there’s an endless supply of Christianized entertainment to be purchased, as if the problem was our taking in “secular” stories, rather than our unproductive addiction to being entertained.

I realize this is starting to sound moralistic and ascetic and Puritanical, but that’s not where I want to end up. I don’t endorse merely a cognitive-behavioral technique for the purposes of considering our thought lives, or an argument to stop watching TV, or an unqualified call to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” My plea is much simpler, and it is this: figure out how to take every thought captive. Find a way to slow down and muse and wonder about the source of your daily thoughts and assumptions about people, about yourself, about God and the Bible, about what you need to be doing with your life.

It’s kind of like this: you can’t read the Bible if you haven’t learned how to read.

You can’t take every thought captive to obey Christ if you haven’t learned to take every thought captive.

You have to learn how to push the pause button on your thoughts and take a good look at them.

Another example: most of the time, I’m looking at the world through my eyeglasses and not thinking about the lenses at all. But sometimes I have to stop and look at the lenses to make sure they are clean enough to see clearly.

Slow down your thoughts enough to realize what assumptions you hold and how they operate in your life.

After you figure that out, then maybe you can incorporate some good theology into the mix, you might be on your way to taking every thought captive to obey Christ.

For my part, I’m still trying to consider the assumptions in my own thoughts, and I’m still trying to learn what good theology looks like. Some day I’ll bring the two together. Grace allows me to go at a reasonable pace. Thank God I’m not a big-time evangelical author who has to churn out another consumable product faster than I can grow spiritually.

I often think that Sunday school needs to be about basic modes of education and self-reflection, the kind of critical thinking that allows one to analyze himself as well as his culture.

-Colin Foote Burch

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On attending certain churches

They will say, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door,” but what they really mean is, “We never check our brains at the door,” but if they knew what you knew and walked into those sanctuaries, they would be checking their brains at the door.

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Revivals, healings, and the theology of suffering

I hear about revivals and “verified healings” and “confirmed healings” quite a bit.

I hope the healings are for real, but —

I worry about the consumer-demand attitude within the revival and healing movements, a consumer-demand attitude toward God, and wonder if the leaders in those movements couldn’t contribute just as much by exploring the theology of suffering.

When Saint Paul begged God to remove the unexplained “thorn in my side,” Jesus spoke and said, “My grace is sufficient.” Certainly a hearty belief in God’s activity today would not have to involve a complete avoidance of that passage.

Years ago, back when a friend and I were both fifth graders, we stood shaking with upset stomachs in the school hallway as we lined up to use the restrooms before class.

It was an abusive school, operated by a small nondenominational church with similarities to the Pentecostal churches. A teacher had strapped my rear with belt so hard, I felt the leather against my bones, and I bruised black and purple.

My only fellow fifth grader had been spanked for misplacing a decimal point.

That kind of school.

In the hallways, lining up at the restrooms before class, my friend and I whispered to each other, “Pray for grace.” As fifth-graders, we used the word “grace” to mean “no punishment,” or “teachers who aren’t scrutinizing us.” For us, “grace” meant “relief.”

At the time, we didn’t experience the relief we prayed for. We continued in constant fear that we would be fully punished, again, for the smallest errors.

We didn’t realize the Bible was full of examples of similar situations.

For a long time, Job didn’t experience relief.

For a long time, Joseph didn’t experience relief.

For a long time, Paul didn’t experience relief.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakeness, or peril, or sword?…For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8, Revised Standard Version)

Saint Paul doesn’t say anything about tribulation, famine, peril, or death going away, just that they won’t separate us from the love of Christ.

But as Aslan says in The Horse and his Boy, “The only story you are allowed to know is your own,” and the Proverbs say, “Each heart knows its own sorrow, and no one can share its joy;” so maybe some people are experiencing instantaneous healing just by going to a certain place or making a certain demand. I certainly don’t want my suspicions to be proven correct by anyone’s prolonged suffering.

But I think the miracles are rarer than reported, and that they are exceptions, not the rule.

To echo David B. Hart’s words, given in another context, The Fall turned creation over to terrestrial and spiritual powers hostile to God, and as Saint Paul wrote, creation longs for liberty from its bondage to decay. God has not decided to change the basic human lot. As long as trees fall in the forests and rot, so will human beings be subject to decay and disease, because trees and people are both part of that creation longing for liberty from decay.

The miracles are the exceptions, and never something that we can command at will, as if God were some malleable power we could use if we got the details of place or prayer just right.

Wasn’t the point of the cross that we were incapable of getting the details right? Weren’t we redeemed so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting the details right? God will act as He chooses, but how does He choose?

These things have me thinking about the way C.S. Lewis portrayed God through the character of Aslan. I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughters; we saw the film version of Prince Caspian today, and we recently began reading The Silver Chair, the sixth of the seven-book series. Aslan has a definite way about him. He’s a personality with intentions. The characters he knows, even the characters he loves, don’t always get their way. There’s a hint throughout the tales that something else is a-foot, that there’s some purpose behind the suffering and the separation the characters often feel. Yet even when Aslan clearly has the power to make profound changes, he sometimes chooses not to, and the characters are not given the reasons why.

-Colin Foote Burch

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Prince Caspian: Exciting, well-done, definitely for 8-year-olds, maybe not for 6-year-olds

Maggie, age 8, thoroughly enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

Audrey, age 6, asked to leave the theater two, if not three, times — despite our review of the ultimate outcome of the story, based on our reading of the book, on our way to the theater.

Prince Caspian holds as much intense fighting as a PG movie can.

It’s also a well-done film, more consistently entertaining, with a more engaging storyline, than the recent film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But it also departs from the novel in ways that I won’t spoil.

I thought Peter Dinklage, who plays the dwarf Trumpkin, might have been the best actor in the film, although Sergio Castellitto’s King Miraz is unquenchable and deeply wicked.

-Colin Foote Burch

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The only problem with boycotting China…


Max McLean talks about playing Screwtape

Screwtape is a plum role—part Noel Coward . . . part Hannibal Lecter . . . part Iago. C. S. Lewis described the process of writing Screwtape as difficult, but playing him is a lot of fun. I remember hearing Malcolm Muggeridge speak of “fictional good” as dull and boring while “fictional evil” is fascinating and engaging. He also was clear to say that in life it is quite the other way around. Perhaps that is one reason film depicts so much violence and evil.

-Max McLean, writing about acting the part of Screwtape from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in this article. The show at Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C., wraps up Sunday.

E.T. is kosher with the Vatican; how will fundamentalists respond?

This has to be the biggest news item of the day, bar none:

Believing that the universe may contain alien life does not contradict a faith in God, the Vatican’s chief astronomer said in an interview published Tuesday.

I remember reading a breathless article in a fundamentalist publication — more than 20 years ago now — alarming everyone about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It seemed that Steven Spielberg’s cute alien was corrupting the children of the nation. The article quoted a little girl, who had proclaimed, “I love E.T. first, and Jesus second.” Gasp! How could a child say such a thing?

So imagine how the fundamentalists will respond to the headline that appeared over the interview with the Vatican’s chief astronomer: The extraterrestrial is my brother.

The end is nigh! Tim LaHaye will disappear any second now.

“How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” said Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory. “Just as we consider earthly creatures as ‘a brother,’ and ‘sister,’ why should we not talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother’? It would still be part of creation.”

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Nkoyoyo, former Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, speaks in Myrtle Beach

Rev. Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, Sixth Archibishop of the Province of the Church of Uganda
Rev. Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, the former Anglican Archbishop of the Province of the Church of Uganda, was speaking Monday evening at Trinity Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Nkoyoyo is in the United States to raise money for Chain Foundation Uganda, which helps visually-impaired children and other vulnerable kids.

Ugandans often believe blind children to be under a curse, but the largest cause of blindness in Uganda is measels, Nkoyoyo said.

Blind children need to learn skills that can help them earn money, Nkoyoyo said. They can learn skills like playing musical instruments or massage therapy, he said. A Chain Foundation Uganda brochure says that many blind children become beggars “due to lack of relevant training.”

Nkoyoyo also talked about sharing the Christian faith with Muslims and other groups within Uganda. He said the Anglican ministers often work with Pentecostal ministers. “The [Ugandan] church is growing because the Christians are involved in the work of evangelism,” Nkoyoyo said.

He later added, “We need to learn to speak one language as Christians.” He said some Christians have become confused by thinking that there are many ways to God, a statement that hinted at theological and doctrinal differences between the more-traditional African Anglicanism and the progressive Anglicanism within Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

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Thinking about God and evil in a world of cyclones and tsunamis

…it is difficult not to be annoyed when a zealous skeptic, eager to be the first to deliver God His long overdue coup de grâce, begins confidently to speak as if believers have never until this moment considered the problem of evil or confronted despair or suffering or death. Perhaps we did not notice the Black Death, the Great War, the Holocaust, or every instance of famine, pestilence, flood, fire, or earthquake in the whole of the human past; perhaps every Christian who has ever had to bury a child has somehow remained insensible to the depth of his own bereavement.

Following the deaths in Burma from Cyclone Nargis, has republished David B. Hart’s essay on the problem of evil. The essay originally appeared in the March 2005 edition of First Things as a response to the tsunami that devastated the South Asian coastline in December 2004. Read Hart’s essay here.

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Actress Christina Ricci wants to do family-oriented films that teach character

Actress Christina Ricci, who appears in the upcoming family-oriented movie Speed Racer, told World Entertainment News Network:

“I wanted to do a kids movie again. I wanted to do a family film. There are so many family movies for kids but they don’t actually teach you anything.

“Speed Racer really stresses integrity and morals and a love of family, and that’s something I think is really important and a trend we need to bring back.”

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Freedom begins within oppression: building a church in North Sumatra

The hardest thing in the world is to practice freedom where there are few (if any) freedoms allowed by the ruling class.

Compass Direct New reports:

Jakarta — Muslim extremists and local government authorities last week threatened to tear down a church building under construction in North Sumatra even though church leaders met requirements of Indonesia’s draconian law on worship places, the church’s pastor said. Emboldened by local authorities’ unwillingness to grant a church building permit to Protestant Bataks Christian Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP), some 100 Muslim extremists accompanied by government officials on April 29 tried to destroy the building under construction in Jati Makmur village, North Binjai, 22 kilometers (14 miles) from the provincial capital of Medan. The Rev. Monang Silaban, HKBP pastor, said about 100 members of the Islamic extremist Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender Front), some armed with “sharp weapons,” arrived at 4:30 p.m. accompanied by Binjai municipal officials, who brought a bulldozer. Police met with church and Muslim extremist group leaders following the confrontation and reached an agreement that construction on the building would cease until the permit is approved – something that hasn’t happened in the two years since HKBP applied.

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Classic childrens’ books live on, despite Potter

Here’s some good news: The “What Kids Are Reading” report from Renaissance Learning shows that classic childrens’ books like Charlotte’s Web and Green Eggs and Ham and The Outsiders and Because of Winn-Dixie and Sarah, Plain and Tall are among the most popular books for our nation’s school children.

The report includes a chart of the Top 20 most popular books by grade level, with one chart per grade from first grade through eighth grade, and then a combined chart for ninth through twelfth grades.

And while Harry Potter moves up the report’s charts with each grade level, he doesn’t occupy a single No. 1 spot.

Take a look at Renaissance Learning’s report — scroll down through some introductory text and you’ll find the graphs that map the 20 most popular books by grade-level, both by gender and combined (overall).

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Memory work increases intelligence, or, in defense of schools that made me memorize verses

New research suggests that the Bible-memorization of my youth made me smarter.

Throughout my growing up years, I went to churches and religious schools that emphasized the memorization of Bible verses. I remember claims that grades improved when one began memorizing the Bible.

It wasn’t magic related to the Bible itself, but the religious schools were onto something.

Today new research suggests that memory-training increases one’s intelligence, and while the approach outlined in this New York Times article is not exactly the same as the rote memorization of my youth, it certainly indicates the value of the brain exercise that took place when I was trying to store biblical passages in my head.

The new research focused on working memory, “the kind that allows memorization of a telephone number just long enough to dial it,” Nicholas Bakalar wrote.

What might be comparable between my Bible memorization and “working memory” could be that I had to learn the Bible verses within a given timeframe and then recite them, thus encouraging me to learn memorization techniques and then forcing me to recall what I had memorized.

Bakalar wrote:

The key, researchers found, was carefully structured training in working memory — the kind that allows memorization of a telephone number just long enough to dial it. This type of memory is closely related to fluid intelligence, according to background information in the article, and appears to rely on the same brain circuitry. So the researchers reasoned that improving it might lead to improvements in fluid intelligence.

First they measured the fluid intelligence of four groups of volunteers using standard tests. Then they trained each in a complicated memory task, an elaborate variation on Concentration, the child’s card game, in which they memorized simultaneously presented auditory and visual stimuli that they had to recall later.

The game was set up so that as the participants succeeded, the tasks became harder, and as they failed, the tasks became easier. This assured a high level of difficulty, adjusted individually for each participant, but not so high as to destroy motivation to keep working. The four groups underwent a half-hour of training daily for 8, 12, 17 and 19 days, respectively. At the end of each training, researchers tested the participants’ fluid intelligence again. To make sure they were not just improving their test-taking skills, the researchers compared them with control groups that took the tests without the training.

The results, published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were striking. Although the control groups also made gains, presumably because they had practice with the fluid intelligence tests, improvement in the trained groups was substantially greater. Moreover, the longer they trained, the higher their scores were. All performers, from the weakest to the strongest, showed significant improvement.

So, this afternoon, while I’m driving my daughter to a doctor’s appointment, we’re going to play some memory games.

It shouldn’t be too hard for her to become more intelligent than her dad.

-Colin Foote Burch

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