Monday, June 25, 2007

Book discussion chapter 5: Branding and identity

L. L. Barkat and Charity Singleton have blogged about chapter 5 of The Suburban Christian, which is called "Status Check: How Consuming and Branding Shape Our Identity." I don't mention this in the book, but one of the things that most convicted me about brand identities and consumer culture was a speaker at Urbana 93 that mentioned how more people in the world know the name of Coca-Cola than the name of Jesus. That got me thinking about how much consumer brand identities dominate our lives. Charity makes these observations:
I think corporate branding has made us all a little lazy in how we get to know and evaluate the world and the people in it. Rather than creating our own aesthetic style in how we dress and decorate our homes, we simply shop at the Gap or Pottery Barn. And rather than taking the time to explore the character and history of our neighbors, we identify them as the man with the blue Suburban, or the family with the matching Trek bicycles.

I consider myself fairly unbranded; I buy a lot of products in bulk from a locally owned grocery store, or from farmers whose agri-businesses don't even have names. But I still identify myself with brand names when I tell people I listen to National Public Radio and shop at Trader Joe's. I don't tell them this so they can know my listening or shopping habits. I tell them this so they'll know what "type" of person I am.
As a fellow NPR listener, I resonate with Charity's comment. Branding in some ways is inescapable. But we can certainly do our best to minimize the power branding has over us, especially in terms of how it shapes our identity and sense of self-worth and status. In many ways, our consumption shapes our identity. (One of the easiest ways to decode someone's self-perception and identity is to look at the magazines on their coffee table. They usually point to identities that we desire or communities that we aspire to be part of.) The challenge is for our Christian identity to shape our consumer identities, not the other way around.

To be honest, this is the one chapter of the book I wasn't sure about including. I had plenty of stuff to say about consumer culture and it didn't seem to all fit in chapter 4, so some of it morphed into chapter 5. And my company happened to be in the midst of a rebranding process, so I had been reading up on the topic of brand identities and was thinking about a lot of these things. (Even as I resist branding in some areas of my life, I've been a diehard InterVarsity Press brand loyalist for years, buying books simply because they said IVP on the spine.) At any rate, the content is there for whatever it's worth, and I hope folks find it helpful. I'll leave you with a few questions for self-reflection or discussion:

- What sense of self-identity or community is shaping how you consume?
- How are your consumer choices shaping your identity?
- What magazines are on your coffee table, and what purchases have you made because of them?
- What brand stories or images have you bought into?
- Has a particular Christian conviction led you to change any of your patterns of consumption?
- Has your church or Christian community helped you be more accountable in your consumer choices?
- How might your church wield its collective consuming power more Christianly?

P.S. Charity also posted a follow-up to her comments on chapter 3 about commuter culture, with great observations about her experiences using the bus.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On reading Tolkien and the significance of names

I'm reading the "new" Tolkien novel The Children of Hurin. Reading Tolkien is much like visiting another country - it takes a while to get acclimated to the culture and the language, but after a bit you get used to all the local names and references. Here are the opening sentences: "Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum which was called Dor-lomin. His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the Men of Brethel; and at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir." Whew. Fortunately, there's a glossary of names in the back.

Tolkien often sounds reminiscent of biblical narratives, which makes me think that for many newcomers to Scripture, reading the Bible may well feel as challenging as reading Tolkien. Both take a little while to get into. One of my colleagues has read The Lord of the Rings a dozen times or more, and he has a far better grasp on Tolkien's world than those of us who have read The Lord of the Rings just once. That's an argument for multiple readings of Scripture, even of familiar texts. My temptation is often to assume that I know what the Bible says since I've read it already, in a been-there-done-that kind of way.

One theme that emerges in the novel is the importance of names. Tolkien was a philologist and loved developing languages and names. The protagonist, Turin, changes his named identity almost every chapter depending on the context - when a fugitive with some outlaws, he gives his name as Neithan ("the Wronged"); in Nargothrond he is known as Agarwaen (the "Bloodstained"), and he is also called Adanedhel (the "Elf-man") and Mormegil ("Black Sword"). At a low point in his journey he calls himself Turambar, "Master of Doom."

Almost every character has multiple names or alternate titles - Turin's friend Beleg of Doriath is called Cuthalion ("Strongbow"); Hurin, Lord of Dor-lomin, is also called Thalion ("the Steadfast"). Morgoth is also Melkor or Bauglir ("the Constrainer"). Turin reveals himself to an old friend by using a name for him that only the two of them knew.

This makes me think about our contemporary practice of having multiple screen names or e-mail addresses. Sometimes lack of availability of a given name necessitates that we find an alternative. Other times we hide behind pseudonyms in an attempt to be anonymous. Some names are our own choosing, while others are chosen for us. Some reflect our self-perception of the present or experiences from the past, while others reflect our hopes or aspirations for the future. I find it significant that names' meanings often influence our destinies - I don't think it's a coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. is named after the Reformer Martin Luther, or that Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson. In many cultures, the meaning of your name reflects your parents' hopes for you, which is why many Chinese kids are named Grace or Joy. (The flip side of this is the lamentable practice of babies being named after celebrities or corporate entities like Pepsi, Ikea or Lexus.)

I think Tolkien may well have understood our desire to inhabit multiple personae, to have different identities in different contexts. But Tolkien would probably tell us that our true identities always emerge. In one scene, Finduilas the daughter of Orodreth says to Turin, "I do not think that Agarwaen is your name, nor is it fit for you, Adanedhel. I call you Thurin, the Secret." At this Turin is startled, because Thurin of course sounds very much like his true name. Then later Turin's friend Gwindor reveals Turin's identity to Finduilas, and Turin rebukes Gwindor: "You have done ill to me, friend, to betray my right name, and call down my doom upon me, from which I would lie hid."

But Gwindor answered: "The doom lies in yourself, not in your name." In other words, whatever name Turin travels under and is hiding under, he can't escape who he is.

When characters are renamed, it seems to indicate a move from a false self to a true self, like Strider the ranger is really Aragorn, the High King. This is a pattern that certainly echoes biblical epics, as Jacob is renamed Israel, Simon bar Jonah becomes known as Cephas or Peter, and Saul becomes Paul. And Revelation suggests that we, too, will receive new names.

So maybe the lesson for us is to consider what names we hide behind, and what names describe who we truly are. When I was a kid, I was always "Albert," which meant "bright and noble" but felt kind of nerdy and geeky, since it always made people think of Albert Einstein. So in high school, I decided to go by "Al," which means "cheerful one" and reflected more of my self-perception. After grad school, when I started writing for publication, I always went by "Albert Y. Hsu," because it sounded more distinguished and dignified. (I wished for cool theological initials like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, F. F. Bruce or J. I. Packer.)

But most people don't know me as "Albert" - that's too formal and stuffy. I'm just Al. So that's what's on my blog, my business card and the church directory. My Chinese name, Hsu Yihao, is more interesting - the characters mean "promise," "greatness" and "full," so all together it means "filled with great promise." So, maybe that's not as cool-sounding as Fingolfin, son of Finwe, High King of the Noldor, but it's something to live up to.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Father's Day reflections: Special needs, special love

[The following is an article that I was asked to write for, an online resource for parents who get prenatal diagnoses of various scary medical conditions. It's a great site with many moving and encouraging stories.]

Halfway into our second pregnancy, my wife, Ellen, and I were alerted that our unborn child had certain “abnormalities.” The doctor doing the ultrasound pointed out physical markers that seemed to indicate possible club feet, cleft palate, problems with the spine and vital organs. He suspected Trisomy 13 or 18, genetic conditions that were “incompatible with life.” He told us, “Based on this information, you can decide to terminate the pregnancy.”

We were stunned. Our first pregnancy had had no problems, and we had delivered a healthy son, Josiah. What had gone wrong this time? Would we be planning for a funeral rather than a birth?

We had an amniocentesis done, at which point they confirmed that our son would have Down syndrome, Trisomy 21. On the one hand, we were relieved that this was not as serious as the other more life-threatening conditions. On the other hand, we still faced uncertainty, likely many medical challenges, perhaps a lifetime of special needs care. We talked with a colleague who has a granddaughter with Down syndrome, and he mentioned that his first reaction was that his daughter and son-in-law may never have an empty nest. We also heard a statistic that about 90% of couples who have a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate.

We are prolife Christians, and our default ethic is to “do no harm.” We were not inclined to abort our child. But what would it mean to bring our son to term? What would it be like to raise a child with special needs? We had no idea.

We started reading books and resources about Down syndrome. We learned that about half of all babies with Down syndrome have heart conditions that require surgery. We read about the physical and mental challenges, the developmental delays, the need for early intervention and ongoing therapies. It was overwhelming. But we also learned that life with Down syndrome was not as scary as we had initially supposed. Because of better care and medical knowledge today, most people with Down syndrome can expect to have long and fruitful lives.

While learning about all of this, it occurred to me that many children throughout history in various cultures around the world had been abandoned because of having special needs. Orphanages in China and many other countries continue to take in unwanted children, and there are never enough adoptive families to meet the need.

Historically, Christians were known for rescuing abandoned babies and raising them as their own. In the early centuries of the church, Christians practiced love and hospitality, welcoming little children into their homes that would otherwise not have survived. Others said of these Christians, “They alone know the right way to live.” Their testimony of lives of compassion showed the world that God was real. Their love for the abandoned and marginalized was a concrete sign of God’s love for all of humanity.

Ellen and I realized that we had the same opportunity as those early Christians to demonstrate that same experience of God’s love. If our son had been born in other circumstances, he may well have been one of those unloved, unwanted children. He could have been abandoned along the side of a road, or thrown into a river to die. As prolife Christians, how could we not welcome this child? Come what may, regardless of whatever challenges were in store, we understood that welcoming our son was a God-given opportunity to practice the same kind of hospitality and love that Christians throughout the ages had been known for.

Even though we were already inclined to continue the pregnancy, we made a conscious choice to bring him to term and welcome him with all love and care. While he was still in utero, we decided to name him so that he was not merely an abstract concept but a named son, a real person. So we gave him the name Elijah Timothy – Elijah being a Hebrew Old Testament name meaning “The Lord is God,” and Timothy being a Greek New Testament name meaning “one who honors God.” It was our prayer that his life would honor the Lord our God, and also that we and many others would learn to love and honor God through our son’s life.

Elijah was born three weeks early on April 8, 2005. He spent several weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit as he adjusted to life on the outside. Many of the initial fears proved unfounded – he had no major organ defects, club feet or cleft palate. A minor heart valve issue resolved on its own, and the only surgery he has needed was for ear tubes. Life has been a bit more complicated than usual with multiple doctors and therapists and whatnot, but nothing unmanageable. We now cannot imagine life without Elijah.

As I write this, Elijah is a rambunctious two-year-old toddler who is always on the go. He loves to watch his Signing Time DVDs and communicates with us through a vocabulary of dozens of sign language words. He pages through his board books and signs words for pictures he recognizes. He sat in my lap briefly as I typed this, gave me a hug, smiled and laughed before scurrying off to play.

This Father’s Day, I am grateful for the gift that God has given our family through our son Elijah. It is not exactly the life we had anticipated or expected, but it is a life of joy and blessing. As we grow in our love for him, we are delighted to see his love and affection for us. And if we mere mortals have such love for our special child, how much more must God’s immeasurable love be for us! Elijah’s presence in our lives is a visible reminder that all life is sacred and that all of us are beloved by God.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When death strikes: Moving beyond the "why?" questions

Yesterday Ellen and I attended a funeral for a woman who died suddenly last week, leaving behind her husband and six children. The service was very much a worship service to God and a strong testimony to her vibrant Christian faith. Heartbreaking, though, to hear the sobs of one of her children who cried throughout the service.

The message took as its starting point the various "why?" questions - Why did she go so suddenly? Why now? Why did God let this happen? And so on. The pastor pursued this line of thinking for a while and said many typical things, including Romans 8:28, which is often cited in situations like this. And all of this left me slightly uneasy.

I've been realizing over the past few years that the "why?" questions are often rabbit trails. When bad things happen, we automatically ask why, as if finding out the answers will give us comfort and peace. We assume that the problem of suffering is an intellectual one, and that finding answers to the why question will clear things up. I don't think they actually do. In some cases, a specific answer to a why question just compounds guilt and blame. Why did he die of cancer? Well, he had a bad diet and didn't exercise. Or he lived in a toxic, carcinogenic environment. Well, what then? Knowing the answers to why questions doesn't necessarily bring us any comfort or hope.

Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. Or they can be answered quite simply, even if much is left to mystery. Why this suffering? Why this death? The simple answer: It's a fallen world. The world is broken. Bad things happen. People die. If we really want answers to the why questions, that's where they take us.

I find it very instructive that the New Testament writers don't really probe the why questions. They don't pose intellectual questions regarding the origins of the problem of suffering and evil. That's because they took for granted that they were living in a fallen world where sickness and death were normative. Why questions are modern questions, not biblical ones. We have the philosophical luxury of living in a context where suffering is unusual (and avoided). But for the vast majority of human history, death and suffering are simply the default. Everybody suffers. Everybody dies. Nobody has to ask why this happens - it just does.

The far more significant question, from a Christian standpoint, is not "Why?" but "What is God doing about it?" This is N. T. Wright's line of argument in his recent excellent book Evil and the Justice of God. He says that Scripture ultimately does not answer the why questions. But far more important is God's answer to the question "What has God done about evil, death and suffering?" And the answer there is that God has decisively acted in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, God has triumphed over the power of death. He has disarmed the powers and principalities. God is redeeming all of creation. He is making all things new. He is creating a new heavens and a new earth. He is wiping away every tear.

After my father's death by suicide, I wrestled with the why questions to the point of exhaustion. And as I wrote in Grieving a Suicide, I concluded that God's answer to the problems of suffering, evil and death is not some abstract philosophical response, but decisive action. Death has lost its sting. Death itself will die. That is the heart of the Christian faith - not merely that we are going to heaven when we die, but bodily resurrection that we shall be raised to new life. As a traditional Easter liturgy puts it, "By dying he destroyed our death; by rising he restored our life."

Pastorally, we certainly stand with those who grieve and ask the why questions. But let's not dwell there indefinitely. Let's focus on what God has done in Christ. As Ruth Padilla Eldrenkamp wrote after the murder of her husband: "Brokenness is not the end of the story. Our pain is deep, but it is not all-encompassing; our loss is enormous, but it is not eternal; and death is our enemy but it does not have the final word."

Friday, June 08, 2007

Suburban blues: Teens, depression and anxiety

A few months back I came across a Psychology Today article about suburban teens and their relative propensity for depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Here's an excerpt:

A report from the suburbs has some surprising news about children growing up in the culture of affluence. It's a longitudinal study and the interesting finding is that the kids have a multitude of adjustment problems. The surprise is that they often have more problems than age-matched kids growing up in the inner city—and their problems persist despite the mental health services presumably available to them.

Beyond a certain point, the researchers found, the pursuit of status and material wealth by high-earning families (say, $120,000 and above) tends to leave skid marks on the kids, but in ways you might not have expected. Affluent suburban high schoolers not only smoke more, drink more, and use more hard drugs than typical high schoolers do—they do so more than a comparison group of inner-city kids. In addition, they have much higher rates of anxiety and, in general, higher rates of depression.

Among affluent suburban girls, rates of depression skyrocket—they are three times more likely than average teen girls to report clinically significant levels of depression. And for all problems, the troubles seem to start in the seventh grade. Before then, the affluent kids do well.

Interestingly, among the upper-middle-class suburban kids, but not among the inner-city kids, use of alcohol and drugs is linked with depression and anxiety. That raises the possibility that substance use is an attempt to self-medicate.

The article goes on to say that achievement pressures and emotional isolation from parents are some of the main factors. Parental career ambitions erode family togetherness, and frazzled schedules shuttling from one activity to another reinforce a performance mentality. High-income families have less parental accessibility and family time together than lower-income families. Affluent families can more easily afford mental health services and professional help for their children, but the irony is that this often merely outsources care and doesn't improve family attachments.

One antidote recommended by the article - eating dinner together most nights with at least one parent present. This single factor was the best predictor of teen adjustment and school performance. So let's spend more time together at the dinner table! Our kids' mental health may depend on it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reflections on vacations, leisure and play

We're back from a week in Hawaii, celebrating our tenth anniversary. (People told us that we didn't look old enough to have been married ten years. Kind of cool.) Ellen had been to Hawaii for a Continentals trip one summer during college; my only time there before was a stop at the Honolulu airport on my way to Taiwan years ago. This was basically our first non-work-related trip by ourselves since our kids were born.

We were on four of the islands: Oahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai. We visited Volcanoes National Park, Waimea Canyon, Pearl Harbor and various waterfalls and beaches. Fantastic weather, of course, apart from a brief rainshower on Kauai while we were at a fern grotto on the Wailua River. (I am incapable of appreciating nature without taking pictures; I took over 800 pictures during the week. See some of the pictures here.)

Part of me was conflicted about the expense of the trip. At times it felt rather self-indulgent to be spending all this money on ourselves. So much of the tourist experience is bound up with consumption and consumerism of some form or another, whether of tours or meals or knickknacks. The sheer number of tourist trap shops, by their very ubiquity, sucked us into buying souvenirs and gifts that we probably didn't really need. (One odd sighting - at Pearl Harbor, our tour guide made the point that this was a memorial, not an attraction, that we should be sober in remembering those who died there. But in the gift shop, there were things like a U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Rubik's Cube. Weird.)

On the flight home, I started wondering to myself, "What's a Christian approach to vacations?" It occurred to me that there aren't biblical examples of vacations per se. Not really the kind of thing that nomadic Ancient Near Eastern peoples had the luxury of taking. But while Scripture doesn't talk about "vacations," it certainly speaks much about sabbath. And Christian tradition would certainly acknowledge a theology and spirituality of sabbath rest as a regular rhythm of reconnecting with God, others and the world around us.

Early on in my experience as a parent, I realized that my young son was helping me rediscover the delight and joy of play. Child development folks talk about the importance of unstructured play. I realized that perhaps just as important as meaningful work is meaningful play. In our workaholic society, sabbath rest, play and leisure can be countercultural (as long as they don't become idols of their own).

So anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip, not only as a time for celebrating our marriage but also as an opportunity to experience God's good creation, to see oceans and mountains and lava flows. The best moments were not spent in gift shops, but swimming or hiking and delighting in the world God created. My theory is that in the fullness of the kingdom of God and the new heavens and the new earth, all of the physical locations of the entire world will be redeemed, restored and preserved for continued exploration and enjoyment. After all, his creation is all very good, and there's no way we can get to everything in this lifetime. So I hope and expect that we'll have all eternity to travel and visit all the places that we have always wanted to visit - and see them in all their beauty and glory, the way God intended them to be.