A Reading Life (prt. 10): Sci-Fi, Star Trek, and Junk Fiction

Related imageBy Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

In my previous post, I wrote of the melancholy I experienced in seminary.  I burned out on biblical academia, and inspiration was hard to come by.  I found solace in the writings of spiritual authors such as Henri Nouwen, but I had to find ways to get out of the biblical bubble of full-time school.

This reached a head in my last year of seminary.  We had our first child, a precious gift, but it was a difficult transition from newlyweds to new parents; and I was facing dead ends in applying for jobs and a PhD. program.  Doors were closed, and I could not see light at the end of the tunnel.  I started seeing a counselor for a season.  I was depressed (for reals).  I needed a hobby.

When I finally graduated seminary, I only had a part time job while my wife worked full time in education, so I became the stay-at-home dad for our first born.  When my wife came home from work, I went off to my part-time job at church.

My daughter and I had fun every day, but when it was nap time I was happy to have some quiet time to watch television.  I started watching the old Star Trek: The Next Generation series, which my father watched when I was a child.

I watched it religiously every day at 1 PM.  I got caught up in the plot, the characters, and the action.  I did not appreciate the show when I was younger, but for some reason it struck a chord and I got hooked.

Enter junk fiction.  Junk fiction is my moniker for fiction that has absolutely nothing to do with ministry.  It is neither religious nor informative; it neither enlightens nor inspires.  It is fiction through and through, and it is “junk” because you can find it anywhere–from used book stores to yard sales.

I started purchasing Star Trek TNG books for a quarter a piece at an Atlanta bookstore.  The plot lines were as cheesy as the show, but enjoyable.  The first book I purchased was a trilogy, The Q Continuum by Greg Cox.  Since Q had been one of my favorite characters (he had me at Farpoint), I enjoyed it thoroughly.

My collection of junk fiction expanded.  I purchased old Twilight Zone anthologies by Rod Serling, dime-store capers, the Enders series (more on that in a future post!) by Orson Scott Card, and (at a friend’s recommendation) novels by Barbara Kingsolver.  I stumbled upon the off-beat works of T. C. Boyle.

To this day, I watch TNG episodes on Netflix while I fold laundry.  I enjoy the new iteration of movies by J. J. Abrams et. al.  And it is not uncommon for me to read one of those twenty-five-cent novels that are still stacked on my workbench in the garage.  Every Christmas I indulge by purchasing a new TNG book (Paramount still publishes about three or four novels a year), and I still get excited when I hear that soaring theme song (it was my ringtone for a while).  Its junk, but its fun–and it helped pull me out of that depression after all.

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A Reading Life (pt 7): Reading the Life of Christ


Image result for Jesus

Just in time for Christ the King Sunday.

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  This, the seventh article, was published on Christ the King Sunday, November 2018.

When my wife and I got married, we thought we knew each other well. We loved each other, but we really did not know how much we did not know at the time. At our wedding altar, our officiating minister said, “Joe, love Kristina as God’s tailor-made wife for you; and remember that it will take you a life-time to get to know her intimately.” Now, 20 years later, I see exactly what he means!

I feel the same way about Jesus. When I was baptized in high school, I thought I knew him. I gained comfort from his love and forgiveness, acquired a love for the church and the Bible, and had several spiritual experiences that moved me deeply; but, even then, I did not know him well.

It was not until I got to college that I studied Jesus the man and got to know him for who he was and who he continues to be.  Since then, a large portion of my “reading life” has been invested in studying this man whom I betrothed when I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Perrine so many years ago.

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “he will save.” The root for this word is yasha, which means “to redeem” and “to release.” It hints at liberation–a savior who does not enslave, but releases people to be who God called them to be by opening new doors and opportunities to live in a new way. This is how I felt when I went to college. Jesus was opening my eyes to see him in a new way!

Part of my new-found passion came from a calling to go deeper in my faith, but it also came from studying under religion professors who loved the Bible as much as I.

The professor who influenced me most was New Testament dynamo Daniel Goodman. Anyone who attended Palm Beach Atlantic University School of Ministry in the 1990s will tell you that Dr. Goodman was a big part of their lives. He was enthusiastic, erudite, humorous, relatable, and entertaining. His chalkboard-filled lectures and soaring grammatical feats were things to behold.

When I entered Dr. Goodman’s class, I met Jesus as if for the first time. It was there that I learned about this historical figure who walked the earth, lived in a particular context and culture, and shapes the church and its liturgy today. Goodman’s enthusiasm and quest for Jesus (he was a Q scholar) were contagious, and it was hard not to walk with a pep in your step upon leaving class.

The first book he assigned us was The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders. Sanders, a Jesus scholar out of Duke University who takes a modest view of the Gospels, was a good introduction. His book opened a new world to me. I walked with Jesus and his disciples in the first century; went to temple to study and pray with him; and I confronted my own journey to Calvary, wondering whether I had what it took to “pick up your cross and follow me.”

My admiration of Jesus studies only grew from there. I read anything I could get my hands on related to Jesus and first-century Palestine, from J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright, to Richard Horsley and Luke T. Johnson. My appetite was insatiable, and my passion deepened all the more when Kristina and I traveled to Israel in 2000. I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus at the time, and what better book to read while traveling the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of my Lord?

Part of the problem of religious studies is that sometimes the head gets away from the heart, and my love for the Bible grew into an acute cynicism. Why did it take attending college to learn the basics of the faith I thought I knew so well? I remember going back to my home church one summer and grilling the pastor: “Why aren’t you teaching us this stuff? Why am I learning it for the first time?”

I later learned that my anger is natural, a part of the learning process in which faith moves from orientation, to disorientation, and to re-orientation (per Walter Brueggemann). That movement, at least from orientation to disorientation, leads to grief and uncertainty. It heightens fear and anger and stretches critical thinking to a near breaking-point. My many “whys?” to my pastor hinted at this stage of my spiritual pilgrimage.

I can’t remember the answer my pastor provided, by the way.  But now — being a full-time pastor myself — I can see why it is difficult to teach those deeper truths that an academic passion seems to unveil. And when I do preach a new or deeper truth that is unfamiliar to most congregations, especially truths that defy the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answers, people approach me with skepticism, as if learning something new is not biblical. I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “I never heard that before,” and meant it as a negative statement rather than a positive opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ.

At the same time, I have learned that every sermon should have something new to share–not just a spiritual insight or application, such as “Five ways to improve your marriage,” but rather something new about the world of the Bible–even if its an insight into the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. Several weeks ago I went to a Bible study for pastors and I did not hear anything new. We are pastors–you have to step up your game if you’re going to teach pastors! Anything less than that is just lazy pontificating.

In college, when I was learning something with every paragraph I read, it was overwhelming. I was confronting a culture in which my Savior lived and moved about and died; and the culture shock still rattles me to this day. If you claim to love Jesus, don’t just know a few things about him–know him and read about his life. Get to know what he values. Take him at his word, and venture beyond the shallows, into the deep end with him!

A Reading Life (Pt 5): The Bible

Related imageBy Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

One of the ways you can tell someone is going to be a minister or go into ministry is if, as a child, that person has an affinity towards the holy.  Some future ministers play church, while others pretend to facilitate the Lord’s Supper instead of playing tea time.  For me, I always gravitated towards the Bible, even when I could not understand it.

When I was growing up, I always had a Bible close to me.  It was on my nightstand.  I had a children’s version of an NIV (still being published!), with pictures throughout.  One year I wrapped my sister’s Bible for Christmas and gave it to her as a gift.  When she opened it and saw that it was her Bible, I said I got it for her because I hadn’t seen her read it.  That was telling!

That NIV stuck with me until I reached high school and really dug deep into God’s Word.  I committed my life to Christ more fully when I was 16.  I purchased an NIV Study Bible, popular back then.  At the age of 18, I purchased a Word in Life study Bible, which ended up being too big to do anything useful.  My youth pastor, my primary mentor at the time, gifted several of us with a Serendipity Student Study Bible that I still use to this day for the middle-school Sunday school class I teach every week at church.  It has my notes from high school in it.

College required the Annotated Oxford Student Study Bible (NRSV), and my love for that particular Bible has been well-documented.  I am on my fourth Oxford NRSV, and I recently purchased a small one for funerals and preaching.  My Associate Pastor, retiring and cleaning out his bookshelf, gave me an Oxford RSV Annotated Bible, a real gem (more on that in a future article on hand-me downs).

Study Bibles aside, my love for the Bible took off in college.  I spent hours reading the Bible every night in my student carrel.  It was my main source of nourishment, and that carried on to the rest of my life.  I am currently reading through the Bible all the way through again, but not in a rushed manner–I read it devotionally and spiritually, praying through every verse.  I accompany the reading with a devotion from F. B. Myers My Daily Homily when I can.

I cannot help connecting my calling to ministry with my love of the Bible.  I went into ministry because of my salvation in Christ, but I majored in religious studies because I wanted to learn everything I could about the Bible.  Even to this day, I purchase introductions to the Bible, namely the Old Testament, just to learn everything I can about it.  I get frustrated when I attend conferences or pastor’s studies and I do not learn something new.  If you are going to lead a study or conference for clergy, make sure you have at least a couple things in your material that are fresh or hot off of the scholarship press–we’ve heard it all, and I don’t need another rote lecture, thank you very much.

The Bible continues to shape my world, as it has shaped the world around us.  And for all of the reading I do, spiritual or otherwise, it is the Bible to which I always return.  You cannot replace reading it for yourself, experiencing the Spirit’s whisper in its pages, and having a daily practice of meditating upon its principles and precepts.