17 December, 2008

non-spiritual ranting: and the Oscar goes to...

When I was a kid, I used to enjoy watching the Oscars. The Academy Awards show, I guess it’s actually called. I liked seeing all the people from the movies dressed up in street clothes, and trying to remember which movie I had seen them in. I remember Johnny Carson was the host a few times, and he was so classy about his presentation, and I loved getting to see him because normally I didn’t get to stay up late enough to watch his show.

Then there was the presentation of the awards themselves. Just like today, there would be little clips from the movies that had been nominated, and then that moment of tension while the envelope was opened: “and the winner is…”

Somewhere along the way, the presenters were instructed to say something different. Instead of announcing a winner, they were told to say “and the Oscar goes to…” I didn’t notice at first, until one actor brought it up in his acceptance speech, acknowledging all the other nominees and saying that he couldn’t believe he had won if they were also nominated.

* * * * * * * * * *

Do you want to know the best movie of 2005? Hands down? Absolutely no contest?


I’ll just say this: if you’ve never seen it, go rent it. Better yet, go buy it, because you’re going to want to keep it. And then get the DVDs of Firefly, which was its TV predecessor. Or come borrow mine. But you have to give it back, because it’s easily on my top 10 list of movies I’ve ever seen.

It may even be the best science fiction movie ever made.

It crosses genres (western meets science fiction), it tells a story of deep and meaningful relationships between people, and what they do and sacrifice for each other. It’s a story about society, and about the nature of the self. Every single one of the characters (okay, maybe not Jayne) is deeply written enough that you could spend hours talking about just that character. The acting is superb. It’s funny, not as in staged gags and humor, but as in the way that people really laugh with each other. It’s sexy in parts, but there is no blatant why-is-this-in-here sex scene. There are tears for the cast and probably for the audience. There are moments of shocking revelation. There’s action and violence, but not the kind of action that takes over the plot of the story.

Okay, enough waxing rhapsodic.

I’ll bet you a nickel you can’t name the “best picture” Oscar winner that year, even though it was just a couple of years ago. [short interlude while the music plays and gives you time to think]

It was a film called Crash, which was a heavy-handed, slap-you-in-the-face-with-the-point movie about racism and the ‘gritty reality’ of urban life. The other nominees included… Munich, a violent, nasty film about terrorism and the horror surrounding it on all sides, Capote, a film about a tortured homosexual writer falling in love with a man who is on death row for the murder of an entire family, and, please God let me forget this movie, Brokeback Mountain, which I’m not going to dignify with any further comment. (you all who are mortally offended at this point because I’ve criticized your favorite movie ever, take a deep breath. The point is that they’re all dark, depressing, twisted films)

It was a growing-up moment for me when I realized that the Oscar didn’t go to the best actor, film, or song, it went to the one that got the most votes from the members of the academy. And there’s sometimes a vast difference between the two. But we shouldn't really blame the Academy. Every community rewards those who affirm their image of themselves, and the Oscars exist for the purpose of self-congratulation.

And you know what? I hardly watch the Oscars any more. We record it every year, and I sometimes fast-forward to see the acceptance speeches for the big awards, but at the end of the day I really just don’t care what “the academy” thinks.

* * * * * * * *

Well, I’ve had another one of those who’s-the-best growing-up moments this year, in an entirely different arena: college football.

I frankly think there’s something seriously wrong with the inflation of college sports into a farm system for professional sports. I’ve already ranted on that elsewhere.

But if you’re going to play a competitive game, and have a ranking system, then you should have a champion at the end of the season. That’s just logical. Every other sport at every other level does this—except Division I football. I’ve never liked the BCS, not since the beginning. But this year is worse than usual.

There are nine teams (twelve, if you count the teams with two losses) whose players, coaches, and fans have a legitimate, reasonable argument to say that their team is the best in college football. Nine. Boise State, Penn State, Texas Tech, Utah, USC, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas all could play in the last game of the season and say they deserved to be there. On January 8th, some announcer will hand the coach (probably Bob Stoops) the crystal football, and seven other teams will watch and say, “nice game, but we could have beaten those guys.” (Texas players will say, “we DID beat those guys.”)

And for me, it’s going to be one of those moments like when they hand out the Oscars. “and the crystal football goes to…” Well, that’s nice and all, but they’re not the best team. They’re one of the teams that got enough votes to get into the last game of the year.

And who are the voters? Sportswriters, who are supposed to be neutral, but everyone knows are biased toward the teams they cover and the teams that make news. Boise State doesn’t get any love from this crowd, not even after a couple of spectacular seasons. How many readers are in Boise? And then there’s the coaches’ poll. Does anybody seriously think that coaches of major college football programs are actually watching a whole lot of other teams play and making unbiased, informed votes? I bet Mike Leach probably watches a whole lot of game film, but not a whole lot of Florida Gators game film, seeing as how Texas Tech doesn’t play them very often. So they have to listen to the news same as the rest of us, and see the highlights and the scoreboard.

Which leads to another abomination in this process. Thanksgiving weekend, there were three big games played. Florida-Alabama, Texas-Texas A&M, and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. All with big implications for the last game of the year. And the announcers and commentators were talking about not just wins, but “style points.”

Style points? Excuse me? What is this, figure skating?

* * * * * * *

To put another face on this, let’s go to the perspective of an almost unknown person, a woman named Debra, who lives in a tiny, one-stop-sign-no-Dairy-Queen town in the Texas panhandle, which means, in case you’ve never been there, that this woman lives in the middle of nowhere. Her husband is the local football coach, which, let’s just acknowledge, can’t be an easy life. Her kids, of course, are football players. They’re also good students, and attend church regularly, and volunteer in the community.

So one of her kids (Daniel) grows up and gets ready to move away, and he’s recruited to play football at a big school that’s hours and hours away from her home by car. A school that plays big-time college football, where the defensive linemen weigh well over three hundred pounds and can bench-press the team bus and rip phone books in half. Her son plays quarterback, but this school already has one—maybe the most gifted athlete the school has ever had at the position in a hundred years.

So your son sits on the sidelines for a year, and never gets in the game, and that’s okay, because you don’t want him to get killed. But then the amazing athlete leaves school to go play football on Sundays and your kid gets to play, and sure enough, he gets hurt. Hurt bad enough that they take him to the hospital in an ambulance while the game is still going on.

But your kid is tough, and he does his rehab and lift weights and drinks milkshakes and gains weight and goes back out there for another season. And gets hurt again, this time bad enough that for a while the doctors are afraid he might not be able to walk again. Would you let your son go back for a third season?

Well, unbelieveably, she does, and the third year the kid has finally started to really fill out, and he has a good season. A really good season. In fact, people start talking about giving him that funny-looking famous trophy for being the best football player in the country. How would that feel? From wondering if your son is going to walk again to winning the prize for best player in the country in one year?

Well, I’m sorry, dear readers. Daniel “Colt” McCoy did not win the Heisman this year. Why? Because the award is granted by voters, and his team will not be playing in the last game of the season.

Earlier this year, Texas Tech beat Texas, by one play. Michael Crabtree made a great athletic catch and struggled into the end zone. Two guys had a shot at him, and neither one made the tackle. If either one of those guys makes the tackle, we’re not even having this conversation. (if any one of five different plays gets made over the course of the game, the same is true) Instead, Texas is undefeated, all the press coverage is on them, and the debate is about who gets to play them in the last game… and Colt McCoy probably wins the Heisman easily. You know it’s true.

You could make a similar argument for the other two finalists, or for Graham Harrell. If their team had gone undefeated, they get far more attention, they get to wear the mantle of “quarterback of the undisputed #1 team in the country,” and they probably win the Heisman. But it’s more bitter for Colt McCoy, because they lost by one play. One defensive play. One defensive play in October is the difference maker in deciding who is the best quarterback in the country? And how on earth to you explain this rationally to Daniel’s mother? Good luck.

* * * * * * *

Okay, I know, I’m ranting.

What I’m wondering is, will I look back on this as the year I quit liking college football?

14 October, 2008

Spam and Eggs

Happy Schereschewsky day, everyone!

It's the feast day of this blog's patron saint, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. I intended to write something commemorating the day. You know, use a few words to honor the man of many words.

And then, instead, I sent a LOT of words. Spam happened. And it's my fault. I clicked the wrong button.

As far as I can tell, an email has been sent to every person in my address book telling them to check out my facebook page and asking them to sign up for an account. (yes, I do have a facebook page. I'm late to the whole facebook party, but finally got there. That's another story for another day.)

Then I tried to send a "sorry, please disregard earlier email" message, but my email program wouldn't let me, saying that I had exceeded the maximum number of messages in an hour. As if I was a spammer... oh, wait, I guess I am.

My whole freakin' address book. It includes three quarters of the active members of my current congregation, about a hundred core leaders from other congregations I've served in and still keep in touch with, at least three ex-girlfriends (don't ask), all of the clergy of West Texas, three judges, fifteen or twenty bishops (one of them a primate), my Senators and Congressman... Ah, crap.

Right. I'm a spammer. And I have egg on my face. (Spam and eggs, get it?)

I'm going home to hide in the closet.

26 September, 2008

two thousand feet of rock--finished!!!

(This post has been overdue since March. Better late than never)

It took a lot of work, but... we have a labyrinth!

Here's how it started: with an empty field.

We staked out the widths of the paths with string and flags, and asked the congregation to come put a rock next to one of the flags. People of all ages helped, with rocks big and small.

Eventually, we called a couple of work days. People brought pickup trucks, and we were able to place several loads each day.

At the beginning of the process, the rector placed the initial stone on the altar in our worship space. When we finished the labyrinth, it went in the center.

It's a big labyrinth...

Come walk with us!

25 September, 2008

The Mathematics of Inevitability

Sometimes, it really sucks being trained as an engineer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago Tuesday afternoon, I was packing to go to a conference in Corpus Christi, Texas. Then we got the word that the conference was postponed because of in impending hurricane. By Wednesday evening, the projections said that Ike would be directly overhead of us here in San Antonio on Sunday morning, as a category 1 or 2 hurricane.

I sent an email to my congregation, warning them of the possibility of a hurricane (just in case someone wasn't listening to the news), and telling them to use their common sense on whether or not they should try to get here for worship on Sunday. I planned out a couple of alternate routes for myself for Sunday morning (the two most obvious ways to get from my house to the church campus have streets that flood).

We weren't alone--events got cancelled all over San Antonio. Kids' activities, high school football... and the Texas Longhorns rescheduled a football game in Austin. Now there's a sign that the world just might be coming to an end.

On Sunday morning, Ike was... over five hundred miles away. In Missouri, for crying out loud.

The very best minds we have, using the most sophisticated computer modeling we have, missed their guess by five hundred miles. Some things we still don't know how to predict, or else are inherently unpredictable.

And then there are other things, whose behavior we know very well how to predict. And that's why it sucks sometimes to be an engineer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Engineers, you see, are trained to understand the way the world works, and to make it a better place. I studied with Phil Bedient, and I know that hydrology is a fascinating and complicated discipline, but if you over-over-simplify, this is true:


V=Volume of water
R=rate of rainfall
I is a coefficient for the percentage of the impervious surface of the land, from 0 to 100%
T=time of rainfall
A=area on which the rain falls

Just for fun, I've used this basic formula (yes, I'm a nerd) to calculate the rate of rainfall, based on the amount of time it takes to fill up a trash can with the runoff from the roof of my house.

Applying to the impending hurricane:

Houston, my friends, is a great big place. It's flat as a pancake, with a huge portion of it paved over or developed. By late Thursday evening, our best guess had changed, and a storm five hundred miles wide was heading for the city, where it was about to rain very, very hard.

And the engineer part of my brain said: It's going to flood, and at least a few people are going to die. The only question is where, and how much.

I've also studied roadway design and traffic flow, and even if there's not such an overly simple equation to show you, I know that if you made every highway single-direction flow out of town, and somehow got the residents of the city to move with military precision, with no breakdowns or accidents, you still couldn't evacuate four million people in less than two days, even if you wanted to.

Which meant that when the mayor of Houston (or the disaster response people) said that they were "taking a calculated risk" when they only ordered the evacuation of certain portions of the city, that's true, but it's only partially true. The other side of it is that they know that they can't evacuate the city that fast, and people with pretty good models for runoff and floods (like the aforementioned professor) know where it's going to flood first, so they move those people first.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Seven years ago this September, I remember having a similar moment about an impending disaster. I didn't see the first plane hit the world trade center, and I was hoping it was a particularly horrible accident. But when the second plane hit, I was sitting on my friend Brian's couch watching it on TV, and it was clear that this was deliberate.

I was stunned for a few minutes, wondering how on earth, and who... and then I started thinking about what was going on. Suddenly, the part of my brain that studied high-rise building design jumped over and overlaid itself on the part of my brain that had been an airport consultant for a few years, and I knew--I knew--that the towers were coming down.

I stared at the wall, and saw in my imagination the curves from the steel construction handbook that describe the strength of steel as a function of temperature. I saw, dancing before my eyes, the homework I had done in high-rise design and in structural stability class. And I turned to Brian and said, "Oh, God, they're gonna collapse."

It's just the mathematics of inevitability.

(by the way, it's not that I'm a particularly good or smart engineer. I'm certain that every one of my classmates came to the same conclusion, wherever they were scattered around the country, only they got there faster than I did)

I got up to call my only friend who worked in the World Trade Center, and got as far as picking up the phone, before realizing that he's pretty smart guy, and was (if he was even in the office that day) already on his way out of the building. I put the phone back down, and went and sat back down on the couch, and waited for the horrible scene I knew was coming.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When a city floods, whose fault is it?

You can't blame the hurricane. It didn't decide to turn North, it just happened.

You can't really blame the city engineers, either. They designed a bayou system for Houston that will handle some tremendous storms. If I remember right, Braes Bayou is designed for the five-hundred year storm. (That means a storm of such intensity that it occurs, on average, once every five hundred years) But it was designed for a five-hundred-year storm in the city in which it was built... and Houston kept growing. Several years later, the runoff from all that extra pavement still flows downhill (such as that is in Houston), and it gets to the creeks and ditches and bayous as intended, but there's more of it than there used to be.

So who's to blame now? Should we tell Mrs. Martinez on the west side of the city that she is not allowed, after all, to realize her dream of owning a house in America? Should we forbid St. Martin's from constructing their enormous new worship space? Make the members of Second Baptist Church park on the grass rather than paving over a parking lot the size of Massachusetts?

Even if maybe we should say some of those kinds of things, we probably won't..because this is basically a free country, and people are going to do what they're going to do. There are laws in place in many inhabited areas that require new construction to be offset by the creation of retention ponds, which makes me feel a little better. But there are plenty of good people who find ways around those laws, or who ignore them because constructing the water retention areas are sometimes expensive.

It's old news by now, but I guess we have to keep saying it. We must recognize that our lives are interconnected. What I do matters.

We breathe the same air, we share the same water supply. When I cut down a tree, we all have a tiny bit less oxygen to breathe. And when I pave over the land, there are people (literally) downstream who are affected.

18 September, 2008

Death of another classmate

I was the youngest member of my seminary class. Every last one of us are second-career clergy, and some of my classmates had already retired once, before pursuing a different vocation.

I remember the day that I realized that being the youngest meant I stood a good chance of grieving every one of their deaths, one by one. I just didn't expect that one of them would die at 42.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

D. Brent Russell was technically the graduating class behind me, rather than my class year. He was an interesting fellow...Strongly held opinions. High ecclesiology. And, unfortunately, intolerant of bullshit. It got him thrown out of a rather heavy-handed cultural immersion course that he was required to attend, and he had to go back for a second helping the next year.

We got to be friends over a series of loooong afternoons in the back workroom of the library. See, almost every student at the seminary in Austin is on a work-study program for financial aid. It becomes a kind of monastic service to the community. In between classes, you see people sweeping, cleaning, running video, shelving books, working for professors. My second year, I had the great privilege of being the student assistant to the Dean. That was way cool. Third year, though, I said that I was willing to let somebody else have that honor, and I moved to the library.

And so it was that, many afternoons, Brent and I sat in the workroom and talked about life, and classes, and the state of the church, and theology, and human sexuality, and liturgics, and... life. I was unhurriedly checking in and shelving periodicals, and he was unhurriedly fixing up old books, repairing spines, carefully gluing end panels back together. I asked him once where he got so good at that kind of thing, and he laughed.

Turns out he was a funeral director before coming to seminary. Didn't really surprise me, once I thought about it. That, of course, gave us material to talk about for at least a month. He never betrayed personal information, but he had stories that would make you laugh and weep, sometimes both in the same story.

He gave me a great gift one afternoon. I went out to his house, waved to his wife, sat down with him at his kitchen table, and for three or four hours talked about the nuts and bolts of the funeral industry from the funeral director's perspective. He had documents, tricks of the trade, perspectives on things I'd never thought about. It was advice I took to heart, and it's come in handy several times already.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The thing I'll remember most is what we called each other. Not sure how it started... probably, it was because I said something to him in the middle of an argument like "okay, in twenty years when you're the Bishop of Texas, we can do it your way," and he responded with something not generally printable.

(Note to the non-clergy:Seminarians love to tease each other about things like that. Nobody in their right mind wants to be the bishop.)

The next day, I walked into the workroom, and called out, "Good afternoon, Your Grace!" Without missing a beat or even turning around, Brent responded, "Good afternoon, Your Eminence!" (which is the honorific for a Roman Catholic Cardinal, or an Archbishop, depending on your religious tradition.) I cracked up laughing, and somehow it stuck.

It became our ritual greeting:

Good afternoon, Your Grace.
Good afternoon, Your Eminence.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Life moved on. I was ordained and hired and brought to San Antonio. Brent dropped out of the ordination process, finished his seminary degree anyway, and made some difficult and painful decisions about his family and his future. Then he decided to try his hand at being a chaplain, which is extremely difficult duty. I think he would have made a great priest, or a great chaplian, in the right circumstances.

And then came the brain aneurysm, a 'successful' repair surgery, the beginnings of rehab, and a sudden (and probably merciful) death. By the time I got the news, he was already gone.

Goodbye, Your Grace.


12 September, 2008

A long blog silence

I think I've finally figured out why I haven't written in quite a while.

Most of you who have had face-to-face conversations with me know that I'm not exactly naturally shy or reserved. ("In love with the sound of my own voice" is more accurate.) In small groups, I have to be careful not to dominate the conversation. I have to constantly remind myself to stop and listen, really listen, to my wife and children, rather than jumping in before they even finish their sentences, and I'm not always successful at that.

But in a large group, I'm different. I want to choose my words carefully. I don't want to waste the time of a large group of people with an incomplete or rambling thought.

I've been a delegate to diocesan council in three different dioceses, covering at least twelve years. In all that time, I've never stood up to address the council, not even once. I've gone to clergy conference for three years, and I have yet to speak up at clergy conference. (sotto voce jokes not withstanding) I've attended city council meetings, meetings of concerned citizens about airport noise, and public forums, and only rarely, rarely, will I say anything.

The funny thing is that I tend to be one of those people who have to start talking about something complicated before I get it straight in my head. I almost always have a step in the sermon writing process where I go for a long walk, or take advantage of a long drive, or shut the door and pace around and around and talk to myself. If we have to make a decision quickly, I'll sometimes ask my wife "let me think out loud for a minute, okay?" and she knows that the first thing out of my mouth might not be the same as the last thing.

* * * * * * * * *

A while ago, my friend Gordon Atkinson asked me to be a part of the network of bloggers for the Christian Century. (you've almost certainly noticed the link in the upper right corner of this page.) I had to think about it for a while to see if I wanted to be included, but finally accepted. I suddenly found myself in distinguished company, people who were faithful and far more articulate than I am and insightful and smart and funny. I read everything that anyone in the network wrote, for a while. Then the network grew and grew, and more and more voices were added, all of them worth reading. I kept reading. And the more I did that, the less I wrote.

Took me a while to recognize the same dynamic that happens when I'm in a room full of people. I realized that I was unconsciously weighing everything that was going on in my head to say against the wonderful stuff that was already being said, and deciding not to waste everyone's time on it. And then I got out of the habit of regular writing. And then life events happened, and I had a few crazy-busy weeks, and then all of a sudden it's been three months since I posted. And if it's been three months, then it's really no big deal if I let it stretch to four...

Take, for example, the subject of my most recent post. It was the middle of Lent, and we were building a labyrinth. Yes, we finished it. Yes, I started writing about it. I even have pictures. But the urgency wasn't there to post it. The people at my congregation already knew it was finished, and my friends who read this blog from several states (or countries) away couldn't come and walk it with us, and all those wonderful people in the bloggers network probably wouldn't care less... Same goes for my monthly articles for the parish newsletter, and sermon manuscripts.

This is silly, I know, but I haven't been consciously thinking about it. It took a day like today, when I was going to be doing something that got cancelled and then I was going to be really busy doing another important thing that's probably not going to happen either and I unexpectedly have a free day to sit back and take few deep breaths and look around to see what I've been neglecting that I shouldn't be.

I never promised to be prolific, but I won't be living in a cave again.

05 February, 2008

two thousand feet of rock

The rector of my parish has, literally, laid out a challenge for the congregation during this season. He has asked us to build a labyrinth.

My congregation's worship space, offices, and school sit on twelve acres on the north side of San Antonio. Four of those acres are completely undeveloped, mostly grassy field with a few trees. There are "long-term master plan" sorts of plans for the land, but those plans are years away from fruition.

In the meantime, Chuck wants us to turn the field into a place for prayer.

So, last weekend, three of the ministers of the church went out and staked out the outline of an 11-circuit labyrinth, and placed survey flags in the ground to mark the width of each path. The idea is that the members of the church will bring rocks to line the paths.

The more I think about it, the more I think it's a great idea. For those of you unfamiliar with San Antonio, it's dry, rocky country. There are stones everywhere. You can pick them up off the side of a highway. You can dig down in your front yard about three inches and hit one. When we were placing the survey flags, it was a 50-50 proposition whether there would be enough soil in the right place you wanted to plant the flag for it to stick. Half the time you would go to put the flag in the ground and would hit (you guessed it) rock.

The point is, everybody can participate. Maybe you don't have extra money for world missions or extra time to volunteer, but everybody can find a rock or two... or five, or ten.

My rough estimate of how much we'll need: a little over two thousand feet of rock.

If you're in San Antonio, come particiapte. Bring us a rock, 12 inches long (roughly the size of an american football), head out to the field on the southwest corner of our church grounds, and place your rock next to one of the survey flags.

Current count: 39 rocks.

stay tuned.

28 January, 2008

The Golden Compass review

I've been asked to renew my series (called "margin smudges" in our parish newsletter) in which I review and comment on books I'm reading, and specifically to start with Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. At the time of the request, I had neither seen the recently-released movie nor, more importantly, read the book on which it's based. Having now done so (thanks to a loaner copy from Betsy Rupe to get me started), I can with a little more integrity add my two cents to the reviews that have already been published.

The Golden Compass is the first of a three-volume work entitled His Dark Materials, and as such is only the opening to a longer story. It is remarkably well written and makes an enjoyable read. The characters are believable and real, and Pullman has great storytelling skill. The movie is also well done, and actually does the first novel some justice. The acting is superb, the CGI and special effects are seamless, and other than what I thought were a few poor casting decisions (Sir Ian McKellen as Iorek? Really?), it's a thoroughly enjoyable film.

As you've probably heard already, though, it's not the first book of the trilogy that's the problem; it's books two and three. Philip Pullman is an avowed atheist, and, as he told The Sydney Morning Herald point-blank in an interview, "My books are about killing God.” At the end of book three, his protagonists do just that (sort of).

The god that gets killed in Pullman's novel, though, bears almost no resemblance to the Living God we worship and serve. It's more the medieval concept of an old man with a long beard living in the sky who is out of touch with the world. He's described with weak limbs and rheumy eyes, a rather pathetic and almost pitiable figure.

Pullman's real target isn't God, exactly, but rather "the church." The overarching point he makes is that the church wants to control behavior, and thus robs humanity of our freedom and robs life of all beauty. Pullman is particularly savage in his criticism of the church's desire to control human sexuality. The exercise of sexual expression, for Pullman and his characters, is something to be celebrated, a way to grow and mature, to expand human consciousness. Thus puberty is the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To quote Hanna Rosen's review in Atlantic Monthly, "To [Pullman], the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood."

While many Christian writers have condemned the books and the movie, it may be surprising to note that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and a formidable theologian), is an admirer of Pullman’s and a supporter of his books. Williams even spoke in favor of using the books as a text for religious education in England, for he contends that Pullman's negative portrayal of the church amounts to an attack on dogmatism and the oppressive abuse of religion, not on Christianity itself. (It’s interesting to note that the person and teaching of Jesus are not a part of Pullman’s construct called “The Authority.”)

It’s unfortunately true that there’s been plenty of oppression in the history of the church, and plenty of attempts to control human behavior, even going so far as abuse and violence, so Pullman’s argument finds an easy mark.

Where the rubber meets the road on this kind of review is: will I take my son to see the movie, and will I read the book to him (or let him read it himself)? And a close corollary is: do I think the children of the parish should read it?

My answer is entirely dependent on the maturity of the child. I’m all for engaging children with deep and meaningful questions about life, spirituality, and morality. But the main point of the book requires a certain level of maturity to grasp. Any child able to read with comprehension will understand that the books are firmly against “God” and “The Church.” I’d want to wait until the reader has sufficient maturity to be able to question how Pullman’s world and ours differ before tackling these stories.

To pre-pubescent children, much of the subtext about sexual expression may also be missed, which may be an argument for letting them read the books early, depending on how you look at it. The whole "heroine loses her virginity and thereby saves the whole multi-world universe from impending doom" ending seemed... pointedly overdone, and fairly ridiculous. I saw it coming from at least three hundred pages away and kinda hoped that particular train wreck wasn't going to happen. Alas.

I will, eventually, encourage my boys to read these books. But I’ll wait until I think they’re ready, and until I judge that I can engage them in the important conversations that the book begins.