State of the blog 2005: The year behind

December 31, 2005

Call it the Year of Best Intentions.

If 2003 was the year I discovered that blogging was sustainable as a hobby, if 2004 was the year I determined what, exactly, the Crusty Curmudgeon was all about, then 2005 was supposed to be the year that I decided how, specifically, that vision would take shape.

It didn’t exactly happen as I planned. But then, what does?

How I did

Sacra Eloquia: A year ago, I started a second blog, Sacra Eloquia, as a space where I could “do” expository biblical theology free from the distractions of a general-purpose blog. It was easy enough to maintain as long as I had pre-existing material to draw on, but I got bogged down when I ran out. Nonetheless, because I started on schedule and stuck with it for as long as I was able, I can fairly declare this particular goal met. Besides, Sacra Eloquia isn’t dead yet.

Reading and reviewing: I planned to review at least one book review every two weeks: 26 reviews. I successfully wrote one. Chalk this one up as a failure.

In my personal reading, which I log on my sidebar, I planned to read through the remainder of the works of Stephen King, Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I tackled one or two of King’s novels, but none of the rest. Another miss.

Theatre time: Wanting to increase my output of movie revieiws, I planned to work my way through the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Well, I did complete my review of Blood Simple, I have viewed all of them up to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and I have a half-dozen half-completed reviews to show for it. Despite that prodigious hard work, I can’t exactly chalk this goal up as having been attained, can I?

I had also planned to work through a series on the best science-fiction films of the last five decades, and the ten Star Trek feature films. Neither idea got off the ground.

Other plans: As I intended, I did make a few ventures into music reviewing. It confirmed a suspicion I had: even though I am myself a musician, and though I listen to an awful lot of music, I feel out of my depth when I try to write about it. Nonetheless, my review of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its release, was one of my favourite pieces of writing for the year, and I am gratified that it received such a favourable response from my friends in the blogosphere.

Summing up: It’s a lot easier to maintain a blog when you just react to what others are saying. I commented on dozens of odd news stories, derided a number of public figures caught in flagrante stupido, and faithfully summarized the best of the blogosphere almost every week. But my own, original contributions were embarrassingly light. I can do better.

End-of-year roundup

My best idea: This September’s Art Deco-inspired redesign of the blog stretched my creativity, not to mention my graphic and Web design skills to the limit. If I may say so myself, I’m still quite satisfied with the result three months later.

Best intentions: The September SF moratorium paved the way for CanLit Reading Month. Out of five planned recommended works, I finished one and a half. How was I to know at the time that a course in moral theology was going to dominate my reading time through to November? But, at least, I still have the list!

Books read: I kept faithful track of all my recreational reading this year, for the first time since 1994. Since at the moment I am in northern Ontario and my spreadsheet is in Ottawa, I can’t do a count at the moment. Stay tuned for an update.

Movies viewed: I didn’t keep count, but it’s safe to say that the number of films I watch over the course of a year is somewhat greater than the number of books I read. My favourite movie of the year, hands down, was Serenity. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Narnia were also well worth the wait. In addition, I was blessed this year to discover the films of acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. This was the first time I had watched a Japanese production that didn’t involve anime or giant green lizards, and I look forward to seeing more in the coming year.

2005 in the wild

Best new blog of the year: Was there any doubt? Phil Johnson did warn us that PyroManiac was a “fully armed and operational battle station,” and this June we witnessed his rhetorical firepower, as half the blogosphere alternately tried to get Blogspotted or to fire a well-placed proton torpedo down his exhaust port. Frequently controversial, never dull.

Best re-branding effort: With a tweak here and there, Frank “centuri0n” Turk’s blog, … and his ministers a flame of fire, gradually became one of the most visually distinctive on the Net.

Most improved: Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of fine blogs that I might have read more than sporadically if they had an RSS or Atom feed, so I could read them in my aggregator instead of constantly having to check the site itself for updates. Steve Camp’s CampOnThis, moved to Blogger from his own site, was one; Stand to Reason’s excellent blog was another; Douglas Wilson’s BLOG and MABLOG was a third.

Finally, I Created an Entire Category in My RSS Reader Just for People Like You: Seriously. My folder of “Whiners” was inspired by the temper tantrums of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, who was shocked to discover that there were people out there who had the audacity to read and respond to what he posted publicly to the Web. We can’t have that, oh no. So over the course of the year, the IMonk shut down his blog, restored it, shut down comments, shut down comments on his group blog, the Boar’s Head Tavern, shut down his blog again, deleted some controversial posts, made others available only to those who asked to read them, generally groused about the persecution he was suffering, and banned a number of sites from discussion at the BHT. The “Whiners” folder has since been populated at various times with pomos, emergies, lefties, Roman apologists, N. T. Wright fanboys, and “reformed Catholics” – but the IMonk got the ball rolling.

That was the year that was. In my next post I’ll look ahead to the year that will be.


It’s the most fraudulent time of the year

December 27, 2005

Once again, La Shawn Barber has posted her annual response to “Kwanzaa,” the pseudo-celebration invented by a radical black nationalist and Marxist as a humanistic, blacks-only alternative to the Christian Christmas:

Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 by Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, a former black militant, Marxist and convicted felon. Claiming to have the unity of black people in mind, Karenga committed most of his crimes against blacks.

Just five years after his invention, he was convicted of torturing two black women by stripping them naked, beating them with electrical cords, placing a hot iron into the mouth of one and mangling the toe of the other in a vice. During the ordeal, he forced them to drink detergent. . . .

Attention Christians: Kwanzaa is a made-up creed cobbled together by a man hostile to the very God you claim to worship! According to Karenga, Christianity is a myth. He does not believe in the God of the Bible. He says this about Christianity: “Belief in spooks who threaten us if we don’t worship them and demand we turn over our destiny and daily lives must be categorized as spookism and condemned.” He believes that the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, the whole rationale behind Christianity, is a myth.

[Read Kwanzaa with Commentary]

La Shawn’s views aren’t universally appreciated amongst black people, even black Christians, so she is to be commended for taking it on the chin each year.

The mouth of the LORD hath spoken it

December 25, 2005

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shined.

You have multiplied the nation;

you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

as with joy at the harvest,

as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden,

and the staff for his shoulder,

the rod of his oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isa. 9:2-7)

I had planned for this Christmas to rewrite and post a Church history essay I wrote this spring on Athanasius’ De Incarnatione, but I ran out of time to complete it. And then the whole incarnation/theotokos fooforaw came along on BaptistBoard and I got a little sick of the whole subject, if that were possible.

So instead I thought I’d just post a verse from a much-loved Christmas carol, albeit a verse that appears in relatively few hymnals, at least that I have seen:

God of God,

Light of Light,

Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;

Very God, begotten not created:

O come, let us adore Him,

O come, let us adore Him,

O come, let us adore Him,

Christ the Lord!

Merry Christmas, all.

Go west, this is what we’re gonna do

December 19, 2005

Fred over at Hip and Thigh ruminates on the plot of Brokeback Mountain and gives it a big “ho hum,” wondering in particular what is supposed to be so “groundbreaking” about a gay-themed romance.

I’ll go one further: What’s so groundbreaking about gay cowboys?

The Village People's 1978 single "Macho Man" - note Randy Jones, gay cowboy, on the left.

Ransom’s least favourite Christmas songs

December 15, 2005

Yesterday I posted my five favourite songs of the Christmas season. Those are the songs I can’t get enough of. These, on the other hand, are the songs I have had enough of. If someone were to invent an electronic device that monitored your stereo speakers and replaced the songs on this list with the songs on that list, I would be first in line to buy one.

  • “Christmas All Over Again”: This is a perfectly typical Tom Petty song, and in that respect it isn’t bad. But he simply cannot be forgiven for the following lines of wretched, non sequitur doggerel: “And Christmas is a rockin’ time / Put your body next to mine.” A sure station-changer, every time.

  • “Away in a Manger”: This song isn’t a Christmas carol so much as a photo-op for proud parents of two- and three-year-olds, dressed up in Daddy’s white dress shirt and a tinsel halo, then wrangled on-stage by their Sunday-school teachers to sing off-key while making hand signs that may represent rocking a baby in their arms. But it’s not a particularly good song, and I think I first started hating it around the time I was one of those three-year-olds.

    Plus, it’s bad theology: “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” suggests that as a baby, Jesus wasn’t quite human. Crying is what normal babies do. How did he tell Mary he was hungry? Did he write her a letter?

  • “Up on the House-Top”: Ho-ho-ho, who wouldn’t go postal if they were subjected to this number every year? We were forced at gunpoint to sing at every annual Christmas assembly in elementary school, so my hatred of it goes back a long way. Yes, we all know now that reindeers don’t have paws, they have hooves. Please don’t tell that stale joke ever again, and please don’t make me sing this stale song ever again.

  • “Do They Know It’s Christmas”: 1984 was the year of the mass-pop-singer-choir charity pop song. Bob Geldof wanted to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief, so he got on the phone and got Duran Duran, Paul McCartney, U2, Culture Club, Sting, and various other Brit-pop singers into a studio for this charity single. And thus Band-Aid was born.

    The thing is, with all these songwriting giants in the crowd (Sir Paul, Bono, and Sting, fercryingoutloud!), why couldn’t they come up with something better? It’s heavy-handed and preachy (“And the Christmas bells that ring there / Are the clanging chimes of doom”), and the chorus (“Feed the world, do they know it’s Christmastime”) needs a few more words and a few less repetitions. Oh, and it says, “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime.” That’s true. It’s because Africa is mostly tropical, and those parts that do get snow, probably get it in June, not December.

    In the meantime, this song has been covered twice: by Band-Aid II in 1989, then Band-Aid 20 last year. Sadly, it charted at #1 all three times by people with very short memories.

    And, the #6.022 × 1023 song on Ransom’s Christmas list is . . .

  • “The Christmas Shoes”: Grumpy man in line doing some last-minute Christmas shopping is persuaded to give a few bucks to shabby waif to buy a pair of shoes so dying mama will look good for Jesus. Now he understands “just what Christmas is all about.”

    Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. NewSong’s tear-jerker is, hands down, one of the most contrived, melodramatic, manipulative, and vomit-inducing songs ever to be released in time for Christmas. Apparently “what Christmas is all about” is this: Don’t be grumpy in line, or God will kill a little boy’s mother to teach you a lesson. Whenever I hear this glurge on the radio (which happens only infrequently, thank heaven), I want to stick a fork in my eye.

    Oh – and it needs a cement mixer to lay on the schmaltz. Gravel-voiced country-type singer, because we all know that country music is honest, emotional, hurtin’ music. Key change! Cue the children’s choir! Gag.

There you have it. Please don’t play or perform these songs near me. To round out the Season of Lists, I’ll post a few comments about my favourite Christmas albums after the weekend.

Nestorius lives!

December 15, 2005

In the late fourth century, the bishop of Laodicea, Apollinarius, developed a novel doctrine of the natures of Christ. He taught that Jesus had a true human body and soul; however, he did not have a human spirit, but instead was animated by the divine Logos. This view was condemned as heretical at the Council of Constantinople, in 381. Other Christian leaders were quick to condemn Apollinarius and propose alternative Christologies, but none were particularly helpful. (Millard Erickson has written, in his Christian Theology, that there is effectively no orthodox understanding of the relationship of the human and divine in the person of Jesus. Every time one has been attempted, it has been condemned as heresy.)

One of Apollinarius’ opponents was Nestorius, who became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius wanted to correct the deficiency of Apollinarius’ Christology, which downplayed the humanity of Jesus. But he, too, went too far. He denied that Mary could be in any sense the theotokos, or “God-bearer,” since giving birth was an essentially human activity. He preferred terms like christotokos (“Christ-bearer”) or anthropotokos (“man-bearer”). What he wound up doing was dividing the two natures of Christ: instead of human and divine in organic union, Christ was simply a perfect man linked to deity. It is debatable how much of this reflects Nestorius’ personal theories, as opposed to his followers’; nonetheless, this Christology, too, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Why is this important? Because it is inevitable that a historically myopic subculture like contemporary Evangelicalism will repeat the same kinds of errors, not realizing they have already been dealt with conclusively.

Case in point: the statement that Mary was the theotokos, or the “Mother of God.” Properly understood in its historical context, this title is perfectly orthodox. It says that Jesus, whom Mary bore, was true man and true God, and that the union of human and divine was a true union, not merely a linking of human and divine attributes. In other words, the point of calling Mary theotokos was actually to say something about Christ – not, as later theological developments would do, to exalt the person of Mary herself. However, because of the association of Rome with the veneration of Mary, many Evangelicals are “Romophobic” to the point of rejecting this title, even though properly understood it has nothing to do with Romanist dogma concerning the Virgin.

Read this thread on the BaptistBoard, where you will find such statements as:

Mary the mother of Jesus is correct. [as opposed to “Mary the mother of God”]

Mary is the mother of only the 100% man.

Not one single atom of what Mary gave birth to was, is, or will be God. Mary gave birth to a physical vessel used by God.

Mary gave birth to Jesus, to His physical humanity but she did not give “birth” to ANY of His divinity.

That made her the physical mother of the physical child, Jesus. . . . However, when we speak of GOD, we are talking about spirit, and there is NO mother of God.

Mary simply gave birth to the physical human part of Jesus.

And these occur just in the first few pages of what became a very long thread! (I asked numerous times whether Jesus was fully divine in the womb, or where his “divine part” was hanging around while Mary gave birth to his “physical human part,” but never received an answer.)

It gets worse as you read the thread, as a number of participants are, for lack of a better word, “cornered” into making other heretical affirmations rather than admit that they are misunderstanding or misconstruing what “mother of God,” properly understood, has meant to the Church all these centuries. (And if you value your sanity and don’t want to give yourself a concussion from banging your head against the desk, definitely don’t go read this thread, where one of the participants in the first thread attempts to make the same arguments in a non-denominational forum and is drawn to make even more extreme claims. [Give a guy enough rope . . .])

One of the arguments that later develop is that Mary was not truly the mother of Jesus, but was actually an “incubator” or a “surrogate mother” of some kind. This, too, is heretical: it is a variation on the theme of Docetism, the denial of Jesus’ humanity. Not that the BaptistBoard denizens are denying that Jesus’ flesh was merely an illusion, as did the Docetists proper. But it nonetheless remains an implicit denial that Christ was a member of the human race, because it removes him from the family line of Adam.

The early church correctly realized that the Incarnation had soteriological ramifications, which is why they were so determined to refute false Christologies. This was especially true in the Eastern Church where Appolinarius, Nestorius, Cyril of Jerusalem (who oppoesed Nestorius at Ephesus), and, significantly, Athanasius, the great defender of the Incarnation, were. If Jesus were not God, then he could not have been a perfect sacrifice. But if Jesus were not a true man, then he could not have been a suitable substitute for sinful men. And if Jesus were not truly a descendant of David the king, then he has no valid claim to be King of the Jews, and we can throw his Messianic claims out the window as well. We are, as Paul might say, “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

Ransom’s favourite Christmas songs

December 14, 2005

With a week and a half to go before Christmas, I decided it was time to get into the spirit of the season a little more than I have up to now. So I thought I’d do something completely unoriginal and get on the Christmas song bandwagon.

Here is my top 5 list of personal favourite Christmas tunes, in order of preference from least most favourite to most most favourite. Some I have included for the sake of the song itself; for others I have a marked preference for a particular rendition.

  • “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”: The high point of the old How the Grinch Stole Christmas television special is this signature tune, played as the Grinch slips through the Who village purloining their goodies. Boris Karloff was the voice of the Grinch, but veteran voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft was his singing voice.

    The charm of the song comes from the increasingly hyperbolic, mock-macabre woes piled upon the Grinch, from “You’re as cuddly as a cactus / You’re as charming as an eel” to “Your heart is full of unwashed socks / Your soul is full of gunk” to the superlative “Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled-up knots.” Pure sing-along fun all the way through.

  • “How Great Our Joy”: This song makes my list because it’s a great one to sing, especially in parts, and especially the refrain. These days, it seems that this traditional German hymn is found more in medleys than on its own, and that’s a shame.

  • “Jingle Bell Rock”: Not just any version, but the one that appears on Point of Grace’s A Christmas Story. I was out buying this album the day after I heard it for the first time, on the strengths of its jazzier numbers: “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and a medley of “Let it Snow” and “Sleigh Ride.” The entire album embodies the best things about Christmas music, but “Jingle Bell Rock” alone is worth the cost of the whole thing.

  • “Anthem for Christmas”: With words by Gloria Gaither and music by Michael W. Smith, this anthem appears on the latter’s 1987 album Christmas, and in at least three Christmas canatas I’ve participated in since 1998. So this is another one that slips in on the basis of its being a joy to perform. Also, I don’t think Smitty gets the attention he deserves as a hymnodist.

    For the rest of the year, a less Christmassy version of this song appears on Steve Green’s album The Mission, under the name “Anthem.”

    And, the #1 song on Ransom’s Christmas list is . . .

  • “For Unto Us a Child is Born”: Handel’s Messiah is properly an Easter oratorio, but with so much of its content being about the Christmas story, it gets a lot of play around Christmas. In fact, the first time I heard it in its entirety was a Christmastime performance. One local church even has an annual event in December, in conjunction with an amateur music society, where it invites the audience to join in, offering a number of rehearsals and a discount ticket price for singers. (I haven’t participated yet, but I will if I can ever work up the courage to tackle Handel’s score.)

    There are many beautiful choruses in Messiah, but this one is representative of all that is good and lovely about the oratorio.

Coming soon: The five Christmas songs I could use a lot less of.