Monday, July 30, 2007
I had reserved a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at a different local independent bookstore that wasn’t having a midnight release party, and because I was at a conference, I wasn’t able to pick it up until Sunday. I finished reading it late Tuesday night. Wednesday morning I gathered with several of my coworkers who had also finished the book and we debriefed and discussed for some time. One friend mentioned that she had reread all previous six books in anticipation of the final release, and that after finishing it, she would wake up in the mornings still thinking about all that had transpired.
I wasted several more hours in the following days reading online reviews and commentary about the book. I also happened to win a pack of movie tickets from dropping my business card in a jar, so Thursday night we used them to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Then this weekend I kept the kids occupied so Ellen could finish reading book 7, and we got together with friends after church to process the book and series. It’s fun to be part of a larger community of millions of readers and fans who are likewise enthralled with these stories.
The New York Times review said that "J.K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe – which may be one of the reasons the Potter books have spawned such a passionate following."
I think it’s significant that one aspect of the Potterverse is fan fiction where readers write their own alternate stories beyond the published canon and further explore what might be going on with their favorite characters. This seems to be the case of any well-developed imaginative universe, like Star Trek or Buffy. There’s so much more to explore. And the result is that consumers can become creators. We don’t just read the books or watch the movies and TV shows; we can enter into the stories and become participants in the act of cultural creation. It’s been a long-standing tradition in the comic book world that the best comic book writers and artists started out as comic book readers and fans.
All this reminds us that Christians shouldn’t be just consuming cultural narratives. We should be creating them. I recently read Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin, which reminded me again of Tolkien’s genius in creating an entire world of epic narrative, history and “true myth.” Ditto with C. S. Lewis’s Christian imagination applied to fantasy, science fiction and other writings. Ellen just read The Restorer, a Christian fantasy novel of a soccer mom pulled into a Lord-of-the-Rings-type world, where "keepers of the verses" are musicians who preserve their scriptures in song. Kudos to the author, Sharon Hinck, for creating such a universe.
We need more Christians engaged in culture-making enterprises, writing stories and weaving narratives that show (and not just tell) Christianity’s themes of redemption, incarnation and new creation. Several of our friends said that they wish they could have written the Harry Potter books. Well, why not? Perhaps someday some Harry Potter fan, inspired by Rowling’s example and also compelled by the Christian story, will weave a tale that will become an even greater cultural phenomenon than Harry Potter.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
- Last year, Americans spent $15 billion on bottled water -- more than we spent on movie tickets. This year that is expected to be $16 billion.
- Water is basically free, and for now more or less abundant in most of the U.S.
- Buying bottled water is essentially buying convenience (and bending to marketing messages).
- 24% of the bottled water Americans buy is repackaged tap water created by Coke and Pepsi.
- Americans drink more bottled water than milk, or coffee, or beer.
- Americans went through about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, 167 for each person.
- Americans throw 38 billion water bottles a year into landfills. (Over $1 billion worth of plastic which could have been recycled -- only 1/4 of all the bottles are recycled by consumers).
- It's easier for most Americans to get as much drinking water from Fiji as they want, than it is for over half the people of Fiji, where the water is bottled yet safe drinking water for the local population is scarce.
- If the water we use at home were to cost what even the cheapest bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000. (Point is: we pay a lot for what is available for almost nothing.)
- Most of the world's bottled water is dominated by four companies: Pepsi, Coke, Danone, and Nestle.
- Within a decade, American consumption of bottled water is expected to surpass soda. Maybe that's a good thing. Is that a good thing?
- One out of six people in the world does not have a safe, dependable source of drinking water. That's a billion people.
- Each day, 3,000 children die from diseases caught from tainted water.
And this line: "If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35."
When I finished reading the article, my immediate response was to fill up a pitcher with tap water and put it in the fridge. And I had a nice glass of cold water with my lunch.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
According to a Census Bureau survey, noise is the #1 "neighborhood complaint," ahead of crime, odors and poor public services. Increased noise is a marker of increased housing and population density in suburban areas, with more cars, more roads, etc. As a result, suburban communities are enforcing noise ordinances, restricting noisy appliances like leaf blowers (95 to 105 decibels) and weed whackers (94 to 96 decibels). Ice cream trucks have been ticketed for playing annoying jingles, and mosques have been sued for calls to prayer.
Their findings, delivered on June 8 in Salt Lake City at the 153rd biannual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, indicate that the noise level in the average suburb is approaching the noise level in the average city.
“The level of noise in the urban and rural areas we tested remained pretty consistent with the 1970 E.P.A. figures” — about 59 decibels in the city and 43 in the country, Mr. Szymanski said.
But in the suburbs, the average ambient noise level was 56 decibels — a whisper less than the average noise level in the average city, and 7 decibels higher than it was in 1970.
Monday, July 23, 2007
. . . doing missions means doing the work of the kingdom wherever you are sent. And the best place to think about where you have been sent is to see where you are. God is a being of great economy. He works before you even realize it and before you sign on, and he's placed you where you are today for a reason. If you find yourself in the suburbs, welcome to your mission field.The book, especially the later chapters, have lots of practical ideas for missional suburban living, in terms of better use of resources, decisions in eating and transportation, connecting with latchkey kids, practicing simplicity, purchasing fair trade, etc. They provide a realistic portrait of challenges and obstacles to suburban justice, and they point out that there is no "silver bullet" or "quick fix." Rather, justice requires commitment for the long haul and long-term investment in our neighborhoods and communities. This is itself countercultural considering how transient suburban culture is.
This book deserves a wide reading. The title is somewhat of a misnomer - the Samsons aren't just talking about suburban justice; they're really discussing the totality of holistic suburban life and discipleship. There's a danger that the book will read mostly by a self-selecting audience of those who are already concerned about justice issues. Really it's for any suburbanite who has a sense that the suburban life is not as it should be and that something must be done about it.
One minor quibble or critique is that despite the title, the majority of the narrative seems to focus on justice in urban contexts or rural settings, whether urban ministries or mountaintop mining issues. Comparatively less space is given to discussing justice in actual suburban areas. Much of the book seems to assume that most suburban Christians are fairly affluent and need to be investing themselves in justice issues elsewhere. While this may be true, I would have liked to have seen more material and analysis about the increasing issues of suburban poverty. I read an article recently about how food shelves in suburban areas have seen increased demand of 300% in recent years (while food pantries in urban contexts have had roughly the same amount of demand and need).
David Fitch argues that "new forms of poverty are taking over the suburbs as thousands have been talked into sub-prime mortgages and various other enslavements which leave them with little or no money for other necessities despite having a suburban home to live in." Julie Clawson made these perceptive comments on David's blog:
Out here in the far west Chicago suburbs I see this all the time. Kendall County is the third fastest growing county in the nation. We have tons of those cheaply built cookie-cutter homes that create the "house poor" culture out here. We are too rich as a county to get any government aid, so social services are nonexistent.These are real issues of suburban injustice - predatory lending, lack of social services, as well as denial on the part of local municipalities regarding suburban poverty and homelessness. I hope that readers of Justice in the Burbs will be motivated and mobilized to pursue justice at home in their suburban neighborhoods as well as wherever God may lead them - urban, rural, global, wherever!
I see this with the moms in playgroup all the time. They got the house but they have no connection to anything. No phone, no TV, no internet. Their husbands won't give them money for gas so they are stuck in their big homes with no connection to anyone. More and more these moms are "homeschooling" (no real education, just basically having the kids at home) so they they don't have to pay all the fees of public school (which are quite hefty out here). If our playgroup happens to meet on their block they show up and stay hours longer because they are desperate for some contact with people.
Every other house in some of these 2-3 year old neighborhoods has a "for sale" (read foreclosure) sign on it. I've heard countless stories of the men just disappearing to escape it all and leaving the mom who has been out of the workforce for a number of years stranded with a few kids, a big house, and a lot of debt.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The author gives an unvarnished portrait of worker conditions in factory sweatshops, but also provides historical perspective and shows how things are actually much better today than they have been in many comparable eras of history. She also argues that the main problems in international trade are not with the markets, but with the politics that govern them.
Lots of fascinating tidbits. From the cotton farming side: It takes about a third of a pound of cotton to make a T-shirt, about fifteen cents' worth. Did you know that cottonseed oil is used in peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, Girl Scout cookies and almost any kind of crispy snack food, like chips? It's also used in soaps and detergents. The meal from cottonseeds is used to feed horses, hogs, chickens, sheep and catfish. And leftover cotton fuzz is sold to be used in throw pillows, candlewicks, twine, medical supplies and tree-free toilet paper. Nothing goes to waste.
At the Chinese factories: Yes, it's low pay, long hours, poor working conditions, cramped living quarters, etc. But it's steady pay and far better than rural life on the farm, which is usually more backbreaking and has little financial return or security. Rivoli notes that generations of activists have "changed the rules of the race and raised the bottom, making it a much better place than it used to be." Young women now have more financial options and are less likely to be trapped in poverty or prostitution.
When Americans clean out their closets and donate old clothes to charity (to make room for an endless stream of new clothes), most of the clothes are bundled off and sold to exporters, who cull through them for items that can be sold to particular markets. A vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt can go for $300 in the collector's market. Mickey Mouse T-shirts and Levis jeans are sold to Japanese markets. The clothes are further divided. Some can be resold in bulk, usually to Africa, in huge bales containing several thousand articles of clothing. These eventually find their way to local entrepreneurs in village marketplaces, where a newish Gap shirt might go for $3.00, but shirts from family reunions and fun runs go two for a penny. Other shirts are cut and made into rags, or shredded into "shoddy," which can become raw material for carpet pads, mattresses, insulation and low-grade yarn that can be remade into cheap clothing. Again, nothing is wasted.
The sheer size of the textile industry is staggering, especially the amount of clothing that is purchased and discarded every year. Rivoli notes that American women buy far more new clothes than men and also throw away more clothes as well - bales arriving from the Salvation Army contain two or three times as much women's clothing as men's. Men not only buy less clothing but wear it longer, so the men's clothes that are donated are usually in more ragtag shape than women's clothing. So Western purchases provide the overseas resale market with about seven times more women's clothing in good condition than men's.
Reading this book made me think through my own closets. I rarely buy new clothes, and I tend to only buy to replace something that has worn out. I rotate through maybe five or six dress shirts and three main pairs of Dockers or slacks, and I own three pairs of shoes - brown shoes for the office, black shoes for special occasions and white Reeboks for everything else. In terms of T-shirts, I only buy shirts to commemorate particular events (Urbana or the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example), and I often find myself getting new shirts for free from trade shows or whatever. I'm pretty ambivalent about my clothing, mostly because these days I don't care a whole lot about fashion or what I look like, as long as things are clean and functional. Even though my default setting is to purchase as little as possible, it's worth remembering that every purchase does at least benefit some worker in some factory (and various middlemen along the way), and discarded, donated clothing also benefits not only some local charity but probably some entrepreneurial merchant in some village overseas. Such is the interconnected nature of global commerce, for good and for bad.
Monday, July 16, 2007
What's interesting is that I was reading this book while in a small town in Wisconsin for a family reunion on my wife's side of the family. Just before the reunion I took our younger son to a local haircut place for a haircut, and while we were out we browsed several local independent bookstores and bought a few items there. I also got a carwash at a fundraiser in a local church's parking lot. The Small-Mart book was on my mind, so I was feeling virtuous about supporting this small town's local economy with my out-of-town dollars.
But then I noticed that I was more intentional about buying locally as an out-of-town visitor than I am at home, where it's all too easy to buy at chains for convenience reasons. Or at least in some ways rather than others. I never shop at Wal-Mart and pretty much always shop at Target. But Shuman isn't impressed with Target either (though it's better). It's just hard to consciously go to independents for everyday supplies.
But we can all pick certain areas that we'll be intentional in. While at ICRS last week, my friend Jana happened to ask me where I'm purchasing my copy of the last Harry Potter book, and I told her I was going to buy it from a local independent bookstore that carries both used and new books. The thrifty shopper in me is tempted by Target, which is selling Harry Potter for almost half off the cover price, but I happen to have some used book trade-in credit at the independent bookstore that can be applied to a new book. So I get the best of both worlds - supporting a local retailer and getting a bargain. (But I'm not sure if I'll be able to go to any midnight Harry Potter parties since the Midwest Emergent Gathering is taking place this same weekend.)
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
And a random item from USA Today:
If you live in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City or Austin, you're more likely to volunteer in your community than if you live in other metro areas, says a report out today by the Corporation for National and Community Service. It's not that people in those cities are necessarily kinder or gentler. They just have the right circumstances for volunteering: They feel connected to their communities, have more education, own their own homes, spend less time commuting and have more opportunities to give back, the report says.
Residents of cities where people spend a lot of time commuting or live in apartments, by contrast, tend to feel less connected to their communities, so they don't volunteer as much. Cities that ranked lowest are New York, Miami and Las Vegas. Residents of rural areas volunteer more than urban areas, the report says.
This correlates well with what Robert Putnam reported, that the more commuting you do, the less time you have for civic involvement or community service. To the extent that suburbia tends to be a commuter culture, suburban Christians should be aware of how commuting tends to diminish volunteering. (I was glad to see that my hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked #1 in the study, with 40.5% of residents doing volunteer work. Chicago ranks #32, with 27.4%. Last on the list at #50 is Las Vegas with 14.4%. See the article for the full list.)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
And we were thrilled to find out that one of our books won in its category! The winners are:
Bibles: Archaeological Study Bible NIV (Zondervan)
Bible Reference & Study: The IVP Atlas of Bible History by Paul Lawrence (InterVarsity Press)
Children & Youth: Sexy Girls by Hayley DiMarco (Revell/Baker)
Inspiration & Gift: Pearls of Great Price by Joni Eareckson Tada (Zondervan)
Christian Life: What Jesus Demands from the World by John Piper (Crossway)
Fiction: When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson)
ECPA Christian Book of the Year: Ever After by Karen Kingsbury (Zondervan)
(Last year a 900-page dictionary of theological interpretation won the book of the year, and they changed the rules so that any of the finalists in any of the six categories could be book of the year. Sales numbers are now weighed as one of the factors in determining the overall winner. Which is why a theological dictionary did not win this year.)
In addition, Packer & Nystrom's Praying also won a Logos Book Award from the Logos Bookstores chain in the Devotional/Spirituality category. Congrats to the authors!
Monday, July 09, 2007
An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, which came out a few months ago. Chatted with both of them briefly here and lamented with Tony that his paper won't be included in IVP's Wheaton Theology Conference compendium.
Jerusha Clark's Inside a Cutter's Mind: Understanding and Helping Those Who Self-Injure. I had e-mailed and talked with Jerusha in the past, but it was nice to connect in person.
Chatted with Lori Smith, author of The Single Truth, which quotes my book Singles at the Crossroads. She told me that she was one of my fans, and I said, "I have fans?" Lori is also the author of the forthcoming A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love, and Faith. She told me that to research the book, she traveled to visit key locations in Jane Austen's life and saw her birthplace, house and gravesite. Sounds fascinating.
A few months back, during the whole Youth Specialties/Skit Guys controversy, I interacted online with Christian Asian American chick lit author Camy Tang. Her new book Sushi for One? just debuted here at the show. At her signing, her publisher handed out chopsticks as well as fortune cookies that said inside, 'You will receive a fortune (cookie)."
The Giant Leaf by Davy Liu, a Taiwanese American illustrator and animator who has worked on classic Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan. This children's book is a fresh retelling of a familiar story, and it has fantastic art. Check it out.
The floor just closed, so I'll wrap up. More later.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
The article goes on to explore how Christians can seek to live faithfully in suburbia. I was particularly struck by this quote from Jenell Paris: "Living in the suburbs can be an exercise in humility," she says. "It is an unremarkable place to live. Your attempts to care for struggling people may get fewer accolades from fellow Christians [than people who work in the city]." And despite the many secular jeremiads and critiques of suburbia, a distinctive that Christians bring is hope. Because Christians have a theology of redemption, there is hope for the suburbs, just as there is hope for the city and hope for the country. May our suburban neighborhoods be visibly transformed by that hope.
Even if certain distinctions still exist, "every place—city, country, suburb—is more diverse than we generally like to imagine," says Al Hsu, author of the recent book The Suburban Christian. The increasing complexity of the metropolitan terrain, along with its sprawling ubiquity, raises disturbing questions for Christians who live there. If where we live forms who we are, and if where we live is largely commercial, alienated, status-driven, and car-dependent, is it even possible to be a faithful Christian here? Was my 20something instinct correct: that justice-seeking Christianity can only be practiced in the few remaining places that are either clearly "wilderness" or "city"?
Hsu doesn't think so. He and the authors of two other recent or forthcoming books on Christianity and the suburbs (David Goetz in Death by Suburb and Will and Lisa Samson in Justice in the Burbs) suggest that suburbia, while potentially dangerous to one's faith commitments, can also be, in Hsu's words, a "crucible … [in which] to learn the Christian disciplines of self-denial, simplicity, and generosity." Each of these authors examines answers to the question that Will Samson articulated in a recent interview: "What does it mean to be followers of Jesus after the death of the suburban narrative?"
This story of suburbia, forged in post-World War II optimism about economic betterment, security, land ownership, and social mobility, holds mythic power in Americans' imagination. People move to the suburbs for a host of reasons, but the move almost always represents a "spiritual quest," according to Hsu, with suburbia as "the setting for the fulfillment of people's hopes and dreams." Several generations into the experiment, some suburbanites aren't buying the story anymore. It didn't take Desperate Housewives to convince Americans that the suburbs are often sites of profound despair, social alienation, and hollow status-seeking; many suburbanites were figuring it out for themselves.
Monday, July 02, 2007
Several years ago while having a personal retreat experience, I meditated on Psalm 23, and even though it's such a familiar passage, the line "I shall not want" jumped out at me in a fresh way. It occurred to me that there's so much that I want. I want to try a new Frappucino flavor. I want to pick up some more comic books. I want season 3 of Lost to come out on DVD sooner. Sometimes it's material stuff, but often it's not - I want my kids to behave better, I want more time to read, I want clarity on some decisions. Regardless, I want this or that. And the psalmist says, "I shall not want."
Of course, the notion behind not wanting is directly tied to God's identity as shepherd - his provision, his protection, his guidance and care. It's because God is truly our shepherd that we truly lack for nothing. And it occurs to me that a direct implication of this is that not only should we not want, but that we should also be channels of provision for those who are in want. Just like a key practical implication of the Lord's Prayer is that if God has provided for our own daily bread, then we should extend that prayer to others who do not have daily bread and see if there are ways that we can provide daily bread for them.
Also this weekend I read an article about "nature deficit disorder" (a term popularized by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods) and the fact that our kids spend far more time indoors playing with video games and electronics than they do outside in nature. In response, there are movements now advocating "No Child Left Inside" to get kids playing outdoors. And it occurs to me that there's a direct connection between verse 1 and verse 2 of Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. And how exactly does the Lord shepherd me? He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.
In other words, he gets us out into his good creation. For those of us surrounded by suburban consumer culture of malls and big box stores, one of the main ways that we can counteract consumer covetousness is to enjoy the natural world that God has created. We can go for walks in the woods, play in parks, breathe fresh air. That's a primary way that he restores our souls. So Ellen and I took the kids for a walk last night, and we chatted with some neighbors and played hide-and-seek in the park. That was more restorative to our souls than any consumer purchase we could have made. Thanks be to God.