Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Objectification of Women

I enjoy watching missions-related documentaries. They’re heart-gripping, informative, edifying, and motivating all at once. It doesn’t matter if they’re small-budget, poorly edited, independent films or large-budget professionally-produced ones. I believe it’s important to stay up-to-date on the experiences of Christians around the world and share what I’ve learned with Christians locally. (Two recently-made films that I’ve begun to recommend to everyone are Malatya, on, and Facing Extinction: Christians of Iraq, on

Recently, I watched the Voice of the MartyrsUnderground Reality: Columbia. It’s not a perfect film, the young adults on the mission seeming too self-congratulatory at times and sensationalizing their personal experiences. However, it teaches much about the Columbian experience in the form of a reality TV show, which might appeal to young viewers. It’s also nice seeing the VOM’s well-advertised parachute project in action (a perfect Sunday School craft if I ever saw one). However, one element of the film greatly disturbed me, and unfortunately it occurred early on in the first episode.

Films like this one have disclaimers for a reason. To illustrate the horrific circumstances in which Columbians find themselves, a number of images showing violence and murder flash across the screen. Later there’s even a reenactment of a guerrilla attack on a bus, staged from an eyewitness account. Rather than desensitizing the viewer to violence, I believe that these elements in the film are necessary to drive home the seriousness of the situation. It’s difficult to ignore a problem that involves real dead bodies.

What disturbed me, however, was one of the pictures of a young woman, (presumably) stripped naked, beaten or tortured, shot, and left dead. Immediately after seeing the photograph, I had to backup the DVD for a second look to actually find out what happened to her. The reason I hadn’t noticed was because the black box covering her breast competed with her bloodied body and arms. I even asked my brother to view it (without telling him why initially), and he concurred that the censor bar was the first thing he saw. It directed his attention away from the very purpose for which the image was used: to illustrate the grave treatment and suffering of the Columbian people.

This hit home what feminists have meant by the “sexual objectification of women.” Rather than presenting the contents of the photo as what they are – a brutally treated victim – or leaving it out of the movie entirely, the filmmakers chose to censor the person’s body. A non-sexual picture instantly became sexual by directing attention to the fact that the victim was a woman and, therefore, in need of covering. I find it appalling that the strong message that this picture has to give must be dampened, if not completely eradicated, by its transformation into something resembling little more than pornography (and violent pornography at that). I think very highly of the VOM and it’s mission, but I pray that more forethought is put into their films in the future.

Open, Sesame

Of all the varieties of fats used in cooking, I happen to be most fond of sesame seed oil. On the practical side, it has a high smoke point and tends not to turn rancid. But the real reason I love it is for the wonderful authentic flavor it adds to dishes such as Korean beef and Chinese stir-fry.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares this appreciation. Whenever I’m preparing a steak marinade, another member of my family will wander into the kitchen and declare that something’s burning. One doesn’t care for the end result either. I suspect that it’s an acquired taste. I’ll just have to find more creative ways of using it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Study Qur’an

About two years, while I was attending an Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference on what one might call the “Muslim Problem,” this idea came to mind: a Study Qur’an. Ever since Cyrus I. Scofield, we lay-Christians have grown accustomed to Study Bibles, our favorite translations accompanied by cross-references, concordances, and notes promoting particular theological positions. There’s a Study Bible for nearly every demographic, denomination, and political affiliation. (As I write, I suspect one for homeschoolers is currently in the works somewhere on a farm in the Midwest.) However, Christian publishers haven’t caught on to the need for a Study Qur’an, despite the immense value it would have to the Christian community at large.

It’s difficult to speak for others; but from what I’ve heard and read, my experience is typical of those who attempt to learn something about the Islamic religion by reading the Qur’an. The sura are not in chronological order, preventing the lay-scholar from noticing, let alone analyzing, the differences between the Medinan and Meccan texts. In addition, the book is too disorganized for the unfamiliar reader to quickly find related passages without the help of Google Search.

A Study Qur’an could aid Christians in understanding the complex system of laws and the interpretations held by different Islamic sects and scholars. A cross-reference could cite related passages in other Islamic sacred texts and the Bible; and commentaries might highlight textual evidence of borrowing from other Middle Eastern religions and cultures. Also, notes could explain the Muslim perspective on phrases such as “Day of Judgment” or “Day of Resurrection” to which Christian readers (such as me) might too readily apply their own familiar interpretations.

I would argue that a Study Qur’an would be the most efficient means of increasing Islamic literacy among the Christian community. What’s needed now is a team of theologians, translators, historians, and former Muslims willing to work on such an enormous project and a publishing firm willing to finance it. If it ever makes the bookstore shelves, I definitely will be first in line for a copy; but the promise of one sale isn’t a strong motivator.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reading the Sacred Carvings

A few years ago, I noticed that The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago annually offered a distance education course on Egyptian hieroglyphics. Why not? I thought rather naively. I'd just finished reading an old edition of Budge's The Rosetta Stone and reasoned that, if nineteenth century scholars could crack the code, then I certainly could learn how to read it.

Needless to say, after about a month of working with Hoch’s Middle Egyptian Grammar, I wasn’t making any progress. The primary problem was writing the hieroglyphs. I actually had more trouble with them than I currently am having with the Hebrew alphabet. Despite some lessons as a child, I’d never been much an artist. But I’ve always been a perfectionist. The first assignment took a long week to complete. Although the professor was very encouraging, I gave up on the second assignment before it was even started.

Since then my interest has been revived a number of times, significantly correlated with the arrival of travelling Egyptological exhibits. It’s not that ancient Egypt particularly fascinates me. When I see artifacts baring hieroglyphs, I feel a strange sense of regret that I can’t understand them. Perhaps in the years to come I’ll muster the courage for a second attempt. In the meantime, I’m content to allow to do the difficult work for me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Museum Docenting 101

Why Do It?

Giving tours can be a fun, fulfilling experience. Many museums are in desperate need of willing volunteers, but there’s a high risk of docents losing interest or getting burnt out quickly. Here’s a basic guide to getting started in the process by someone who has put in plenty of time in the docenting world - me!

Volunteers Beware!

Browse around the internet for notices or visit a local museum of interest and just ask. Like most non-profit organizations, museums run on volunteer labor. More often than not, the amount of help they need just isn’t available. By offering to docent, you’ll be taking a heavy load off of museum employees who have to put off other duties to give tours and other volunteers who might get stuck with extra large tour groups when no one else shows up.

Before committing, make an honest evaluation about your interest in the subject. You don’t have to know a lot about it beforehand. You just have to be willing to learn. If the museum covers a variety of types of exhibits, you might get bogged down trying to keep up with all the new information. On the other hand, beware of letting on too much about being an expert in the field. Knowing a lot more than everyone else might make other docents-in-training intimidated.

Depending on the institution, there’s likely to be some sort of training session lasting a few hours or a few months. You’ll learn how tours are conducted, what material needs to be covered, and what kinds of questions to expect from your group members. Some museums provide scripts to follow to the letter, while others let docents do their own thing, but in either case, you’ll be expected to adhere to some sort of standard format. If you wish to make a drastic change in the content, be sure to check with the museum education staff first.

Expect that, before going out on your own, you’ll probably be taken on a tour by someone with more experience and then have to give one for your docent trainer. Practice by yourself a few times, walking around the galleries and mumbling to yourself. Those who have been going it for years still are in the learning process. Remember that you’re not going to get good at this overnight.

Things to Remember

1.      You should take a genuine interest in the subject or field. Your group will be able to tell if you’re not happy.
2.      You should agree or sympathize with the institution’s mission and purpose.
3.      Do the suggested readings and independent research. The museum staff doesn’t know everything about the subject. Go find the answer yourself. Be prepared for questions.
4.      Know that by signing up for a training session, you might be signing your life away for an agreed upon length of time. Make sure you have the time and stamina to commit to a certain number of tours.

Getting the Job Done

More than likely, the vast majority of your tours will be conducted for school groups, generally public schools, and for a particular grade level whose curriculum includes the subject of interest for the museum. Other groups – private schools, homeschool co-ops, families, adult tourists, college students looking for extra credit, Boy and Girl Scouts troops, etc. – are a lot less common, especially for small-time local museums. Depending on the organization, you may or may not know who you’ll be guiding until the tour actually begins. It’s always a good idea to prepare some ideas about how to tailor your content at the last minute to engage 3-year-olds or college professors. The last thing you’d want is someone to get bored.

Things to Remember

1.      Keep abreast with seasonal changes in exhibits. Timely notification by the museum staff should be expected, but it often isn’t reality. (Believe me, this one can take you by surprise!)
2.      Learn how curriculum standards and “common knowledge” are tied to the contents of museum’s exhibits. Then you’ll be able to gage beforehand what kind of prior knowledge your audience has and how best to approach different topics.
3.      Remember that little children will be more interested in what they see rather than what you’re saying. Be prepared to make on-the-spot adjustments to your script.
4.      Remember that you’re discussing real people, real events, real situations, real discoveries…really fun stuff!

One Final Comment

Sometimes docents can be obnoxious. (Remember, I’m speaking as both producer and consumer.) Sometimes they’re just not interested in putting any extra effort into the job. Other times they make negative assumptions about the group that feed into their presentations. Don’t let your behavior spoil other people’s experience. You want them to return next year.

Things to Remember

1.      Try not to assume too much or too little. Ask your group questions initially to gage what they might know about the subject. Then you’ll be able to adjust your comments accordingly.
2.      Be honest when you don’t know the answer to a question. Offer to ask another docent, or suggest a source for more information. Sometimes people are happy just to discuss about possible explanations and interpretations rather than to receive a dry textbook answer.
3.      Don’t take offense if people look bored. They might just be listening intently...or they might really be bored. Use signs of waning interest as a clue that you need to move faster, spend less time on a topic, etc. – that is, improve.