A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Creepy Church Design & Christian "Normals"

In the past, I've blogged a bit about the way Christian cultures sometimes use the "creepy" or the grotesque for religous purposes. For example, the way the film "Corpse Bride" was occasionally dismissed because it looked "weird." Or the way Roald Dahl books are rejected by some because they are "too morbid" for children. And I've rambled on about about Halloween and gargoyles. As my more recent posts about ghosts should make clear, I generally think that spooky stuff is cool, and I'm generally interested in how Christians respond to "the creepy." I think there's sometimes a bizarre tendency to assume that "scary" means "bad" or "unChristian," as if a healthy Christian worldview would be devoid of the creepy, the grotesque, and the frightening. (But it's okay to talk about Hell, right? Even to tell children about it? Yeah, I'm wondering how that coheres just as much as you are.)

Well, I'm not the only one to notice that American Christianity's approach to human mortality and death is some times out of touch with Christian treatment of death on a global-historical scale. (Note: you may wonder what "global-historical" means. So do I. I am not sure it is a real term, but it sounded good here, don't you think?) Today, for example, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has an interesting post on the use of human remains in ecclesiastical artwork/furnishings. Is that creepy, or what? It certainly does add a challenging view to arguments about whether human remains constitute an object to be used. And if you think that's not an interesting subject, it's only because you haven't thought about the potential application to organ donation. {Thanks to Evangelical Outpost for calling this issue to my attention.}

Now it's time for me to make some rambling generalizations:

In general, it is much too easy for Christians from a specific time and location to assume that their way of approaching an issue through the lens of religion is clearly the right way, the Christian way. Our treatment of the dying and our handling of human remains serves as just one example of an area where our ideas about what constitutes the proper "Christian response" are heavily influenced by our own culture and time, in ways we don't always see. It's as if, because we belong to a Christian subculture, we assume that the way our subculture handles a specific issue must be the Christian way. Even when we are aware of much we are shaped by our own culture or tradition, it may be hard to avoid the initial gut reactions that say "that's just wrong" or "that's an unChristian way of handling that issue."

A similar thing happens in marriage, as Wolgemuth, Wolgemuth, Devries and Devries demonstrate: each partner enters the marriage with certain daily living patterns, ways of doing things which appear to be the right or normal way. Even when spouses theoretically know that their way of doing things is not, objectively, the only right way of doing something, it is very hard to see alternate approaches as anything but wrong. The authors of The Most Important Year in Every Man's Life/The Most Important Year in Every Woman's Life call these expectations about what to do and how to live "normals." We all have normals, and in general, we all tend to (mistakenly) assume that our normals are right, and that they are shared by our whole society. Part of learning how to be married means learning how to negotiate a new set of normals. This includes learning how to recognize the difference between normals (ways of doing things) and morals (guidelines on how to act rightly). Sometimes the two look very similar. Even when the difference is clear, though, it can be very, very hard to let go of your own normals.

Likewise, I'd argue that an important part of interchurch communication is learning to recognize which "religious normals" are actually moral or doctrinal issues, and which are merely different approaches to the same issue. Not all differences are created equal. But, as in marriage, it can be very hard to admit that someone else's religious normal may not actually be wrong. "Lord, help me recognize the limits of my normals!" might be as good a prayer for conversation between Christians of different communities as it would be for married couples.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What Have I Got in My Pantry?

Today we're going to play a culinary game. I call it: What Have I Got in My Pantry? Here's how you play:

1) Realize that it is your turn to cook dinner, and that you have nothing planned, aside from having a piece of meat in the refrigerator.

2) Poke around in your cupboards and refrigerator in search of ingredients that are, alas, not there, because you forgot to add them to your grocery list.

3) Keep a mental inventory of what IS there, and devise a cunning plan for using these ingredients, to-wit:

4) Throw a bunch of random ingredients, along with chopped up meat, into your slow cooker. Add some basic seasonings. Cook until dinner time, in the hope that it will have magically morphed into something edible.

In my case, I had intended to make my
Mushroomified Swiss Steak again, using some simmering steak that I had taken out of the freezer the night before. However, I didn't have Cream of Mushroom soup, nor Cream of Celery, which might have worked in a pinch. I had, in fact, Cream of Nothing.

I did, however, uncover a large number of canned mushrooms and quite a bit of sphagetti sauce, so I resolved to make a pasta sauce with steaky goodness. Here's what I found to throw into the pot:

From the refrigerator shelves:
- that pound or so of simmering steak, which I then cut into bitish-sized pieces.
- half a jar of Newman's Own tomato basil pasta sauce
- minced garlic (there's always room for garlic)
- about half of a cup of chardonnay, from an opened bottle that had been sitting in the refrigerator for weeks. (I had to have some liquid to extend the jar of pasta sauce, and I didn't really want to drink that wine.)

From the crisper drawer:
- a quarter of a large red onion, which I diced. There was actually half an onion, peeled and waiting to be chopped, but as this was a huge onion, I figured 1/4 would do
- half of a yellow bell pepper, which I then chopped into pieces. I don't normally put peppers in my pasta sauce, but why not? It was already there, waiting to be used.

From the cupboards:
- a can of sliced mushrooms
- a hearty sprinkling of dried basil and oregano, plus a lighter dash of salt and pepper

It's all cooking on high now in my smallest crockpot (which is a perfect size for small meals like this, by the way. I heartily recommend the small size to childless couples). I'll lower the temperature to low in an hour or two, but starting off on high will help ensure that the meat, which was still a bit frosty in the middle, gets cooked quickly enough. I plan to serve it on our usual whole grain spaghetti, with spinach and possibly Texas Toast on the side. That's a fairly typical meal for the Tulip household. . . it's just that such meals are usually planned in advance rather than thrown together from leftovers.

Will the meal turn out well? Your guess is as good as mine. . . expect an update later.

Promised update: the sauce turned out to be so-so. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't outstandingly great, either. As my mother might say, though, it beat starving.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Angels, Demons, and Bad Fiction

The Christian publishing market is a rapidly growing one, so they say. I am particularly pleased to note that in the wake of the Tolkien-Lewis revival (and, dare I suggest, the wake of Pottermania?) Christians have finally begun writing fantasy novels: you can find many of them at Edenstar Books. Forgive me if I've mentioned this before: as a fantasy fan, I am very happy to spread the news about this store. To tell the truth, I still feel that secular fantasy is generally of better quality than Christian fantasy, but it seems to me that some of the more recent books are improving in quality. Ted Dekker's White, Red, and Black trilogy is a fine example.

There are also Christian thrillers available, though the "thrillers" still tend to be Peretti-esque spiritual warfare, in which angels and demons fight invisible battles. I used to think this entire genre was passe and perhaps even dangerous, in as much as the "life" of the angels doesn't seem to accord with what has been revealed about them. Angels in the Bible sometimes look human, but they also (famously) look quite bizarre. Where are the many-eyed seraphim with wheels in the Spiritual warfare books? And what kind of angelology is being promoted, when all these fictional angels do is fight? One might gather, from other parts of the Bible, that the primary task of angels is to worship God, rather than to do battle. Admittedly, some spiritual warfare books do make mention of the time angels spend "before the throne" in adoration, but this almost always takes place off-stage, and it never seems central to their work.

Recently, however, I read Wormwood, a book in which the angel Raphael actually walks around as "God's assassin," killing human beings, and I realized that the Peretti-esque treatment of angels may in fact be much safer than the alternatives. Somehow, Taylor's Raphael did not at all strike me as a minister of God's healing.

For those who want to read about the adventures of Raphael in a less violent text, I recommend the book of Tobit. The Raphael found in Tobit has very little resemblance to the Raphael of Wormwood. Raphael in Tobit is a friendly, helpful chap with a sense of humor, who likes to make puns. He is also a healer and a matchmaker, who manages to talk Tobias into falling in love with his cousin Sarah before even meeting her. Indeed, a large part of Raphael's mission is making sure that poor Sarah is actually able to consummate her marriage, instead of having her husband killed on the wedding night. True, the tale has its Peretti moments, in that getting Tobias and Sarah together involves capturing and binding the evil demon which is in love with Sarah, but curiously, Raphael does not do this on his own. He gets Tobias to help him, through the use of a stinky fish. (What, you mean humans can assist angels through more than just providing "prayer cover"? No way!) Once Tobias expells the demon, Raphael is able to bind it. And then Tobias and Sarah are able to. . . well, let's just say that they do what young people are supposed to do on their wedding night.

Come to think of it, there could be a very interesting Christian "fantasy" novel to be written based on the book of Tobit. I grant that not all Christians consider the book to be inspired or canonical, but one can hardly deny that it's a good story. It's got everything readers could want: romance, suspense, an evil demon, a good angel, a faithful pet dog, and a happy ending. Sounds more fun than my dissertation, anyway. . . you think Zondervan might be interested?

Whether I could actually write a sustained work of fiction in a readable style is something I don't know, but I think I can guarantee that my angel novel wouldn't be full of comma splices!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fairwell, My Beloved Crockpot

Dearly Beloved, we are gathered to day to mourn the loss of Teresa's medium-sized slow cooker lid. It plummeted violently off of the kitchen counter (so the report goes) and was brutally shattered on the kitchen floor.

The lid, affectionately known to its friends as "Chippy," left behind a widow: an aging crockery cooker of a beige color. The appliance is approximately 30 years old, and is of a generic name (not that there's anything wrong with that), rendering it unlikely that it will be able to find another match as felicitous as the one so unexpectedly broken. Indeed, we anticipate that the pot will go out with the garbage. We hope it will be reuinited with "Chippy" in the great Landfill hereafter.

And in the meantime, the "Tulips" are left without a medium-sized slow cooker. Alas, what are we to do? For the medium sized slow cooker, as all wise cooks know, is the most useful and versatile size, capable of handling recipes which would tax the capacity of a 1 1/2 quart model, without burning them the way a 5 quart model would. Truly, this is a household bereft.

But life goes on, as we know from the Beatles. Already Teresa is making a list of the features she desires in her next slow-cooker relationship. They include:

* removable, dishwasher safe liner

* three settings: high, low, and "warm"

* lid and handles that are cool to the touch, thus obviating the need for an oven mitt.

* brand with a reputation for reliability

* moderate cost

* colors less hideous than those of the seventies models

The last point will, undoubtedly, be easy to satisfy, but will Teresa be able to find a medium-sized slow cooker than meets all of the other qualifications? Tune in next time to learn which model she has selected! And remember: glass lids are delicate creatures. They demand to be treated with tenderness and respect, particularly if they belong to models no longer manufactured. If this message can prevent the fracture of only one slow-cooker lid, Chippy's life will not be in vain.

(We invite fellow mourners to share their fond memories of Chippy in the comment box.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Theology and Mystery: Laurie R. King

Some time ago I began dropping bizarre hints about a series of books I was reading: mystery novels which dealt with theological themes. Since no one solved my Mysterious Challenge, I've decided to reveal the author and series.

The author is
Laurie R. King, an award-winning California novelist. The series that introduced me to King was the Mary Russell series. I'd imagine that to most mystery readers, the Mary Russell books are of interest because they include Sherlock Holmes as a main secondary character. King would be quick to deny that these are "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries, and her writing style reinforces the fact that these are really Mary's storires: most of the books have been written from the first person perspective of Mary. Interestingly, the most recent novel, Locked Rooms, includes third person sections which reveal Holmes' perspective. I'm not sure yet how I feel about this change: I rather prefer Mary's POV. However, I suspect there are plenty of Holmes-fans who would welcome more glimpses from his eyes.

I find the inclusion of Holmes to be entertaining and at times intriguing. Holmes serves as a link between post-WWI England (most novels take place in the 20's) and the Victorian era. Through her connection to Holmes, Mary encounters real-life Victorians such as Sabine Baring-Gould, and to fictional characters such as Rudyard Kipling's Kim. Both Justice Hall and The Moor create a strong sense of connection to a rich past. In The Moor (unquestionably my favorite in the series), the past is seen as fading, as Baring-Gould nears the end of a very long life. Justice Hall, however, offers a good deal of promise for the future of an ancient family. All of which is to say that the time period of these historical novels is deeply appealing, because, as a time of transition, it enables King to explore both the nineteenth-century (primarily through the presence of those who lived most of their life in that century, but also through the strong physical presence of nineteenth-century buildings, from cottages to mansions) and the twentieth.

However, that's not the reason I'm blogging about Laurie King. I'm recommending her to my readers foremostly because she is a trained scholar of religion, and her study of religion visibly influences her work. Mary Russell is herself a theologian, while Anne Waverly of A Darker Place is an academic specializing in "cults" - not that Waverly would endorse that term. These books are not Christian mysteries along the lines of G.K. Chesterton or Debra Murphy, but they are deeply concerned with theology and morality. That's something one rarely finds in the world of secular fiction, and it's something I'd like to support.

Those interested in King on account of her use of religion in her novels start by reading this section of her homepage. And if your time allows it, I do recommend picking up one of the Mary Russell mysteries. If nothing else, they have the merit of being very well-written. Would that all great plotters were also good stylists! All in all, King is a treat.