Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
For the Western mind the word manger invokes the words stable or barn. But in traditional Middle Eastern villages this is not the case. In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:13-21) there is mention of “storehouses” but not barns. People of great wealth would naturally have had separate quarters for animals. But simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a “prophet’s chamber” on the roof, as in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17:19). The main room was a “family room” where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century. I have seen them both in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem.Bailey contends that it is likely that Mary and Joseph were given hospitality by a local family, and that Mary gave birth not by herself, but with the assistance of women from the village. Middle Eastern customs of hospitality and honor would have required it, especially since Joseph's family hailed from the region and likely still had extended relatives in the area. Bailey notes,
“No room in the inn” has taken on the meaning of “the inn had a number of rooms and all were occupied.” The “no vacancy sign” was already “switched on” when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Greek word does not refer to “a room in an inn” but rather to “space” (topos) as in “There is no space on my desk for my new computer.” It is important to keep this correction in mind as we turn to the word we have been told was an “inn.”The TNIV has a better translation of Luke 2:7: "there was no guest room available for them." The word that Luke uses is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn. In fact, it is used later on in Luke 22 to describe the upper room. Bailey concludes:
To summarize, a part of what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home. The child was born, wrapped and (literally) “put to bed” (anaklino) in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space. Why weren’t they invited into the family guest room, the reader might naturally ask? The answer is that the guest room was already occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house.
The family room would, naturally, be cleared of men for the birth of the child, and the village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth. After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a blanket.
. . . that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened.
Monday, December 22, 2008
And it's not just Christians who are stingy. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes liberals to task for not being as generous as conservatives. Some excerpts:
More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money at all—"not even a token $5 per year," say sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell in a new study on Christian giving, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).
Of all Christian groups, evangelical Protestants score best: only 10 percent give nothing away. Evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but they do not outperform their peers enough to wear a badge of honor. Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe."Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations," Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, "whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent." While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).
In fact, in absolute terms, the poorest Christians give away more dollars than all but the wealthiest Christians. We see the pattern in recent history as well: When Americans earned less money following the Great Depression, they gave more. When income went up, they began to give less of it away.
Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.I was challenged some years ago to give away as much as I spend on myself. I don't do this nearly enough, though I'm trying. This particular Christmas season, I've had this odd feeling that Advent is too long. I got most of my Christmas shopping done early, with weeks to spare. And then, with more time on my hands, I ended up buying additional gifts that I probably didn't need to buy. If Christmas had just been a week or two earlier, I would have saved myself a few bucks. (An additional factor is that my wife's birthday is Jan. 4. So I usually end up getting a bunch of stuff for her, and then decide later which will be for Christmas, her birthday, or Valentine's Day.)
The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.
It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.
According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.
In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)
Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.
Since I often scold Republicans for being callous in their policies toward the needy, it seems only fair to reproach Democrats for being cheap in their private donations. What I want for Christmas is a healthy competition between left and right to see who actually does more for the neediest.
At any rate, I'm sick of Excessmas already - bah, humbug. But I'm glad that Christmas is almost here.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
When my wife, Ellen, and I were dating, I found her sarcasm jarring. I would respond to her sarcastic remarks by saying, "Did you know that sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazo? It's a verb form of the noun sarx, meaning flesh. Sarkazo was used to describe wild dogs ripping out flesh. That's what it's like when you are sarcastic—you're tearing out my flesh." She didn't quite see it that way.
It wasn't until I got to know her family better that I came to understand that sarcasm was one of her family's love languages. They joked around with those they cared for; it was their way of saying, "You're part of the family." I gradually realized that Ellen's sarcastic remarks were her way of telling me that she liked me.
Holidays are usually times of gathering with extended family and relatives that we don't see very often. This can be a cross-cultural experience. The kids play outside while the aunts and uncles hash out family issues in the kitchen. We wonder, How can these people possibly be related?
We all have quirky family traditions and wacky uncles. But we are still family. Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford notes in Never Mind the Joneses that every family has its own way of doing things. Most marriages face conflict when one family culture bumps up against another. Successful marriages incorporate elements from the cultures of both families of origin and forge a distinctive third culture.
Socially, many of us rarely mingle with people beyond our own "family." Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort, observes that Americans tend to organize themselves into like-minded communities, both politically and religiously. We live in fragmented tribes in which we only interact with people we already agree with on most issues. Bishop notes that when communities are homogenous, opinion becomes far more absolute and dogmatic. Conservatives become extremely conservative, and liberals become radically liberal.
Some geographic areas are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat that it becomes inconceivable to residents that people could hold differing opinions. As playwright Arthur Miller asked during the 2004 election cycle, "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" We live in echo chambers where our perspectives are not tempered by alternate views.The church is also at risk of living in theologically homogenous echo chambers. . . .
[Go here for the rest of the article.]
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Despite Kindle’s emphasis on accessibility—get any book, anywhere, instantly—this is true only if you can afford to own the device that allows you to read it. You can’t share the books you’ve read on your Kindle unless you hand the device over to a friend to borrow. There are other drawbacks to the Kindle, more emotional than practical. Unlike a regular book, where the weight of the book transfers from your right hand to your left as you progress, with the Kindle you have no sense of where you are in the book by its feel. It doesn’t smell like a book. Nor does the clean, digital Kindle bear the impressions of previous readers, the smudges and folds and scribbles and forgotten treasures tucked amid the pages—markings of the man-made artifact.I'm inclined to agree with James Gleick's NY Times recent article, where he says, "It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover." Most of us in the book publishing industry love not just the content and the ideas of the books we publish, but also the physicality of the actual books. The physical book provides tactile reference points - we remember where something is in a book by how far into the book it is, or whether it's on the upper left-hand page or near the end of a chapter. There are visual cues in a physical book that are lost in an electronic reading device.
. . . when you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”
Anyone who has read a book to a toddler knows that one experience with an e-reader would yield more interest in the buttons and the scroll wheel than the story itself.
Gleick observes that for mere information retrieval, electronic access has already surpassed print books - hence the rise of Wikipedia and the eclipse of physical print editions of Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. And so CD-ROMs and digital versions of biblical references, dictionaries and commentaries make a lot of sense, when the main need is searchability and retrieval. But for the meditative experience of thoughtful reading, physical books are still the standard.
I still worry if my beloved book publishing industry will evaporate the way newspapers are dying off or how CD sales have fallen off a cliff. Thomas Friedman says that bailing out the Detroit auto industry right now is "the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. . . . It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet." So that's a good word of caution regarding the future of book publishing (or any industry).
Yet I'm encouraged by the dozens of comments on Eugene Cho's blog when he asked people to mention the books that have influenced them the most. People are reading, and not just stuff on screen. I'm hopeful that people will continue to be book readers, and that Christians continue to live out their heritage as people of the book.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
A larger question that suicide raises is whether life is worth living. Some of you may be wrestling with this right now. And let me say this: This human life is worth living – so much so that God himself came to earth to live it. God didn’t necessarily need to become incarnate in Jesus. In his infinite wisdom, he could have had other ways to accomplish our salvation. But God created this world and our human life and declared it good. And this Advent season, we affirm that God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. In doing so, he validated the human experience. Jesus tells us that this life is worth living.
When Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t simply tell Mary and Martha, “Oh, he’s in a better place now.” No, he wept because death should not separate us. Death is not the way it is supposed to be. So Jesus brought Lazarus back to life – even though he would die again someday. But the raising of Lazarus is another declaration that this human life is worth living. And it points to the ultimate truth that life will triumph over death.
The Bible has an example of suicide prevention. Acts 16 tells about when Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. When an earthquake opened the doors of the prison, the Philippian jailer thought that the prisoners had all escaped. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself rather than face execution. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” He intervened in the jailer’s life and stopped him from killing himself. He gave him a reason to live and led the jailer and his whole family to Christ.
We can do the same. If you see people who are in despair, tell them, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here! We are here for you.” The warning signs of suicide are prolonged depression and hopelessness, isolation or withdrawal, loss of interest in usual activities, giving away possessions, suicidal thoughts or fantasies, and suicide attempts. If you see these warning signs in a loved one, get help! Talk to them about it. Ask if they’re doing okay. Don't worry that you might be giving them ideas. You're probably not. Better to talk about it than to remain silent until it's too late.
My father’s suicide made me look into my own family history, and I learned that there’s some history of depression. And I remembered that back in high school one summer, I was pretty depressed about a girl who didn’t want to go out with me. I was at a summer camp, and I was acting all depressed. I learned later that my roommate and the camp counselors were concerned enough about me that they put me on suicide watch. They worried about me and talked with me to see how I was doing. I’m grateful that they kept an eye on me. They kept me from slipping further into depression. That’s what community does. We are here to help each other through the tough parts of life.
So if you or someone you know is struggling with depression, get help. There is no shame in going to the counseling center. If needed, ask a professor or pastor for help. In an emergency, call a suicide hotline or even the police. This life is worth living. Help one another live.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Should you put your house on the market today and downsize? Maybe. Should you quit your job? Maybe. Or perhaps God wants you to work harder at your job and be His witness there. Does He want you to move to another city or another country? Maybe. Perhaps He wants you to stay put and open your eyes to the needs of your neighbors.
My suggestion as you think, make decisions, and discern how God would have you live is to ask yourself, "Is this the most loving way to do life? Am I loving my neighbor and my God by living where I live, by driving what I drive, by talking how I talk?" I urge you to consider and actually live as though each person you come into contact with is Christ.
Imagine if you opened up a drawer in your kitchen and found twenty cheese graters but no other utensils. Not very helpful when you're looking for something to eat your soup with. Just as there are different utensils int he kitchen that serve diverse functions, God has created unique people to accomplish a variety of purposes throughout the world.
That is why I cannot say in this book, "Everyone is supposed to be a missionary" or "You need to sell your car and start taking public transportation." What I can say is that you must learn to listen to and obey God, especially in a society where it's easy and expected to do what is most comfortable.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Barack Obama - Renegade
Michelle Obama - Renaissance
Malia Obama - Radiance
Sasha Obama - Rosebud
Joe Biden - Celtic
Jill Biden - Capri
Cool. Previous code names include Rawhide (Ronald Reagan), Deacon (Jimmy Carter), Eagle (Bill Clinton) and Trailblazer (George W. Bush). John Kerry was Minuteman, John McCain was Phoenix, Pope John Paul II was Halo. Best one: Karenna Gore named herself as Smurfette, to her later regret and embarrassment. (I used to read Tom Clancy's novels, and in those books President Jack Ryan was Swordsman, his wife was Surgeon, and his kids were Shadow, Shortstop, Sandbox and Sprite. Love those.)
This is reason enough for me to run for president: I want a Secret Service code name. Maybe something like Bookshelf or Thriftshop. My older son would probably want to be Lightsaber, and my younger son would be a plausible Applesauce. There are Jedi name generators, superhero name generators and a Sarah Palin baby name generator - somebody should make a Secret Service code name generator.
What would you have as your Secret Service code name?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
What's been interesting is that the whole experience has made the Westmont community reevaluate their relationship to their stuff. Admissions counselor Todd Pulliam was cited as saying, "I definitely lost a lot of stuff, but in the grand scheme of things it's nothing. I told God I wanted to simplify my life—and he's done it."
Stacey Torigoe, a staff writer for the student newspaper, offered these reflections:
There's a wisdom and maturity in these reflections. Westmont College is one of the most expensive Christian colleges in the country, and the surrounding area is extremely affluent, where celebrities live in multi-million-dollar homes. (Because of the high cost of housing, Westmont had built on-campus faculty residences so professors could afford to live there, and a number of those residences were destroyed in the fire, meaning that some professors lost both their homes and offices.) This is a community that has had to live in uneasy tension with materialism and wealth. Some students are children of privilege; others are not as well-to-do. But now all of them are rediscovering that material things are not what's most important in life. That's something all of us should remember.
When I heard the order to evacuate to the gym, I was going to sax quartet rehearsal. The only things that I’d been able to save were whatever I was carrying at the time: my precious alto sax and music, my cell phone and the clothes on my back. Hence the “homeless musician,” a label courtesy of my dear sister.
But I’m not planning on panhandling on State Street; I work strictly with ensembles. Maybe someday Jeff and I will get together and play duets, but for now, I’ll worry about whether my favorite jeans have gone up in flames or been soaked into oblivion (or both), along with, of course, my hiking boots and my pictures of home. As a Hawaiian, I long for a rain-soaked embrace after this scorching inferno.
It’s a strange feeling, to be homeless. Yes, I’m sad about losing things - my computer, for example, with irreplaceable pictures of memories that I’ve made at Westmont, my Spam musubi mold and my new hiking boots. Now I’m here in a hotel room downtown with my mom.
It’s a lesson in materialism, long overdue. While going through mental lists of what I lost and trying to figure out what can be replaced, I am constantly reminded of the fact that no matter how precious, none of the stuff in M102 was ever really mine - it was God’s. Even the clothes on my back that I escaped with were never really mine - and they still aren’t. They’re a gift, and they were given - and, by grace, taken away - for a reason.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
"Um, which one?"
"The suburbs book. I read your blog."
"Oh, that's great. Thanks!"
That was kind of wild. I was surprised and thrown off balance enough by the exchange that I didn't catch the person's name. So, if you're reading this, thanks again, and thanks to Compassion for all the good work you do around the world!
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
L’Arche is a network of communities that brings together people with and without disabilities to live together in mutuality and friendship. It’s a place of profound countercultural witness. Society often does not know what to do with people with disabilities. But L’Arche is a place that declares to the disabled, “I’m glad that you exist.” During a talk Sunday night, Vanier said something along the lines of, “If we want to have a society that is more human, we must create spaces for those who are different. And we will discover that we are all people beloved by God.”
While in Durham, I stayed with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (coauthor with Shane Claiborne of Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers) at their neo-monastic intentional community of Rutba House. It was good to spend some time with them and get a glimpse of how they do life together, making meals, sharing things in common, confessing to one another and forgiving one another, connecting with the community. They are thoroughly embedded in their local neighborhood and practice a degree of hospitality that is rare in our contemporary culture.
I love how L’Arche and the new monasticism both point to the kingdom of God in their own distinctive ways. Hauerwas says that L’Arche is a sign of hope and exemplifies a kind of gentleness and patience that reminds the church of what it is supposed to be in the world. John Swinton’s introduction to the book says, “L’Arche shows, as the church is called to show, that Christianity is true by demonstrating what community would look like if the gospel were true.” The church in America has much to learn from how L’Arche and the new monasticism practice community, peacemaking, friendship and gentleness.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
I loved the fact that my local CBS affiliate had no voice-over commentary after Obama's speech and just let the cameras roll as Obama, Biden and their families celebrated with the Grant Park crowds. I thought the music sounded like a movie soundtrack, and I learned this morning that it indeed was. And both candidates used music that interpreted the meaning of this election. This is from the MTV Movies blog:
Movie lovers might have noticed that each man chose music from a [Denzel] Washington movie to play while walking offstage after their respective speeches. And, not for nothing, but we think they both made the perfect choice.
Consider: McCain left the Arizona stage to part of Hans Zimmer’s score from “Crimson Tide.” (This part, actually.) The 1995 Tony Scott film focused on a career Navy man (Gene Hackman), labeled a maverick by some, who is stripped of his authority and ultimately beaten by a young black guy, somewhat new to the scene (Washington).
Then there was Obama, who left the stage to the strings of Trevor Rabin’s score from “Remember the Titans.” The 2000 Disney/Bruckheimer joint? It followed an African-American coach who brought together whites and blacks to win a championship.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
In the morning, Doug and Marilyn Stewart (veteran spiritual directors with InterVarsity who go to my church) provided a guided retreat reflecting on Matthew 11:28-30, the classic passage where Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." I realized that I often come to Jesus distracted and fragmented, but that's okay. He still invites me to come, even in the midst of those distractions, and to bring those things with me. And what jumped out at me was that Jesus does not say "I will take away your burdens." The stuff of life is still there. But he gives us rest, and that changes how we interact with our burdens.
I was also struck by the next line: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me." I'm in the midst of an educational studies program, and something that has become clear to me is that there's a vast difference between teaching and learning. Christians have tended to focus a lot of energy on teaching and communicating the gospel and doctrinal content, but we have not thought as much about how people actually learn. We tend to assume that if we preach about it or teach about it, people will learn it. But that's often not the case. So this verse jumped out at me as one of the relatively few verses that speaks specifically of "learning" rather than "teaching." And it's significant that there's an experiential dimension to the learning. It's not just content download. It's lifestyle, practice, and exercise of trust.
Something else that was jolting to me was an application of the next phrase, "for I am gentle and humble in heart." I've always glossed over that, thinking, duh, of course Jesus is gentle and humble in heart. But I hadn't seen the connection between Jesus' character/identity and his call for us to learn from him. Could it be that Jesus wants US to learn to be gentle and humble in heart? Yikes - that changes things entirely! That means that this passage is not just about us getting a restful spiritual benefit. It means that Jesus is concerned about our apprenticeship to him and our character transformation. The more we are yoked to him, the more we should become like him.
Perhaps then we will be more likely to find rest for our souls. The more we are humble in heart, the less bent out of shape we will be by our burdens and the stuff of life. This passage is not just about God changing our external circumstances. It's about our internal transformation as well, which equips us to face our circumstances.
I have to admit that I am not very good with extended solitude and silence. I am a fairly antsy, restless person, and rather than sitting still during the retreat, I found myself roaming the halls and wandering aimlessly around the church. I am ambulatory that way. But even so, I think God connected with me in the midst of my frisky-puppy ENFP prone-to-wander personality type. And I am grateful.
During my workshop, something that came up in discussion was how frantic and crazy busy our suburban culture and lifestyle is. And we observed that that's perhaps why evangelical interest in spiritual formation has grown so much in recent years. It's countercultural to practice silence, solitude, retreat, sabbath, quiet, contemplation. It's interesting because I've now presented on suburban issues both at activist social-justice-type conferences as well as contemplative spiritual formation events. And the two kinds of communities can temper one another. We may naturally gravitate toward one group or the other, but the contemplative tradition can temper the activists, just as the activists can exhort the contemplatives. The church needs both.
Anyway, thanks to Mindy Caliguire and the Invite 08/Soul Care team for putting together the event, and for the invitation to come to Jesus and learn from him.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
“Our culture conspires against collaborative thinking and the development of social competence by conditioning us to think adversarially in terms of winning or losing, of proving ourselves smart, worthy, or wise. Deborah Tannen (1998) writes of ours as an ‘argument culture,’ a cultural paradigm that conditions us to approach anything we need to accomplish together as a fight between opposing sides, like a debate or like settling differences by litigation. Political discourse becomes reduced to negative advertising. . . . We tend to believe that there are two sides to every issue and only two. We set out to win an argument rather than to understand different ways of thinking and different frames of reference, and to search for common ground, to resolve difference, and to get things done.” (pp. 11-12)
“Discourse is not based on winning arguments; it centrally involves finding agreement, welcoming difference, ‘trying on’ other points of view, identifying the common in the contradictory, tolerating the anxiety implicit in paradox, searching for synthesis, and reframing.” (12-13)
“Our values and sense of self are anchored in our frames of reference. They provide us with a sense of stability, coherence, community, and identity. Consequently they are often emotionally charged and strongly defended. Other points of view are judged against the standards set by our points of view. Viewpoints that call our frames of reference into question may be dismissed as distorting, deceptive, ill intentioned, or crazy.
“Who we are and what we value are closely associated. So questions raised regarding one’s values are apt to be viewed as a personal attack.” (18)
“A more dependable frame of reference is one that is more inclusive, differentiating, permeable (open to other viewpoints), critically reflective of assumptions, emotionally capable of change, and integrative of experience.” (19)
Monday, October 20, 2008
The week prior to the sermon, Elijah broke the DVD tray on our TV. We have one of those combined three-in-one TV/VCR/DVD players. A few weeks prior, Elijah had broken the VCR part, and it doesn't eject videos right anymore. It still plays them once you get one in, but you have to really fight to pry it out. And now the DVD tray is off of the track or something, and it no longer closes.
I had a section in my sermon about how in consumer culture, if we need something, we go out and get it ourselves. Our default setting is to consume. If something breaks, we buy a new one. Instead of automatically purchasing new things, we should take the practical step of first saying "I shall not want," and pray to see if we can do without it, or borrow it, or if God might provide it through some other means. And I mentioned Elijah breaking our DVD tray. (Now I had to see if I would really practice what I preach. Funny how our own sermons preach to ourselves that way.) I observed, in the big picture of things, we don't really need a DVD player. People have survived for thousands of years without one. So we would live without one in the meantime.
I have to admit, when Elijah broke our DVD tray, part of me wanted to throw out the whole thing and say no more TV/videos/DVDs, ever again. On the other hand, another part of me wanted to go out and buy a new TV. Maybe a nice big plasma flat-screen thing we can hang on the wall, out of kids' reach. (Or not.)
Ellen and I could still watch DVDs on my laptop, but I didn't want the kids touching it (especially since Josiah wrecked an earlier laptop by pouring milk on the keyboard). So Ellen and I were wondering if instead of replacing the whole TV, maybe we just get a cheapie thirty-dollar DVD player and use that with our current TV. Still, it felt like an unnecessary consumer purchase for something we don't really need.
Then yesterday, Josiah and I were playing Lego Star Wars on the Playstation, and it suddently hit me - hey, maybe we can play DVDs on the Playstation! We'd never tried it before, but sure enough, the Playstation also works as a DVD player. The game controller works as the remote control. So now the kids can still watch DVDs on the TV, through the Playstation, and we didn't have to buy anything new. Problem solved. The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I actually was thinking about debate just last week because I caught up with fellow high school debater and friend Jenell Williams Paris, who was speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Conference. Her talk on the church visible as good, bad and ridiculous is available online here. Excellent material - she argues that the church as the continuation of God's narrative necessarily includes the good, the bad and the ridiculous, and that all of these are integral elements of the plot and drama of the Christian story and our own stories, with all their character development, conflicts, plot twists and surprise endings. It echoed Kevin Vanhoozer's talk from last year's conference about the gospel as drama. (Speaking of Vanhoozer, I finally got a copy of his Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, which is an absolutely stunning compendium of multidisciplinary scholarship. I looked up the article on poststructuralism, and it had me at hello. Seriously.)
Jenell and I went to different high schools in the same debate league, and we debated against each other numerous times (she was very good). We got to know each other because we were in the same lab group at debate camp. I figured out that she was a Christian because she had Amy Grant tapes, and back then only fellow evangelical church kids had Amy Grant tapes. We reconnected years later because both of us wrote for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly and we bumped into each other at a Vine conference in 2000 and have kept in touch via the blogosphere and Facebook ever since.
Anyway, all this made me reflect on how much being in high school debate league has shaped my worldview and perspectives. First and foremost, I learned how to structure an argument. "Resolved, that the United States government should adopt a policy to increase political stability in Latin America . . . Contention 1. Harms. Contention 2. Inherency . . ." I find that how I organize and structure books now draws much from the flow of debate cases - you establish the significance of the topic and the harms/problems at hand, and explore the reasons that the problems are not being solved. Then you introduce your plan for addressing the problems and demonstrate how your plan achieves solvency, yada yada yada.
I also learned how to research, and I recall many long hours in the library making photocopies of the Congressional Record and clipping quotes as evidence to be cited from notecards. I learned how to think on the fly and write a rebuttal speech while listening to an opponent's speech. I learned how to tie a necktie. I learned how to talk fast. Well, I already talked fast, and debate made me talk even faster.
A side effect of being in debate was a tendency to frame everything in terms of argumentation, and I came to disavow this default setting later on. In fact, one of the reasons I quit debate was that I got tired of it being so adversarial all the time. It's exhausting, and some of the rhetoric of this current election season reminds me of those debate modes. Nowadays I'd much rather work more collaboratively in discussion rather than argumentatively in debate.
But I also learned from high school debate that basically every argument has some degree of merit, and every position has its strengths and weaknesses. No policy or case is ever fully right, or fully wrong. During the course of a debate tournament, we would regularly debate the affirmative side in a case one round and then debate the negative side the next round. We would routinely need to marshal our own best arguments against ourselves. We would have to learn how to argue for and against various positions, regardless of our personal beliefs on the issue. This didn't make us all relativists; rather, it taught us critical thinking skills and helped us learn to weigh the merits of every position and line of argument.
I think being trained in high school policy debate has made me more skeptical about absolutist claims from either political party or platform. Theorist Richard Paul talks about two kinds of critical thinking: "weak" critical thinking is only able to employ critical thinking against opposing viewpoints. But "strong" critical thinking is able to be self-critical and to examine one's own positions. As such, strong critical thinking usually leads to greater epistemic humility and is less dogmatic. As Esther Lightcap Meek puts it in her book Longing to Know, there's a difference between certainty and confidence. Absolute certainty is unlikely, and an impossible standard. But confidence is a more biblical way of thinking about things.
At any rate, I've been thinking about some of these things during the last presidential debates, and I'm sure they'll be on my mind tonight. I'll be looking for the candidates to move beyond the talking points of their stump speeches and to employ critical thinking and analysis, not merely attacking or deconstructing their opponent's positions, but also demonstrating epistemic humility and awareness of the complexity of the issues.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
(Note: Reinhold Niebuhr should not be confused with his brother Richard, who is most known for his classic Christ and Culture.) I was interested that the Wikipedia article on Niebuhr linked to this David Brooks New York Times column from last year:
Back in college (or was it grad school?) one of my profs pointed us to Niebuhr's Moral Man in Immoral Society. I just came across this comment on Niebuhr's thought:
Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”
So I asked, What do you take away from him?
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.
While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self–interest (hence "moral man"), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self–transcendence ("immoral society"). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self–assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self–interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.Does this give us a hint about how a President Obama might govern? Perhaps. It may also be significant that Niebuhr is credited with writing the serenity prayer: "God, grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference." That's not just good Christian realism; that may well be a good philosophy for governance.
Niebuhr’s "Christian realism" was not, however, a Darwinian or Machiavellian ethic of pure struggle and the will to power. Niebuhr stressed the relevance of agape, or Christian love, not as a directly practicable political principle, but as the ideal toward which justice strives and the standard of judgment on all political achievements in history. Moral, rational, and religious appeals might be subordinate factors in the struggle for justice, but Niebuhr still counted them as real: if rational and ethical considerations alone don’t make oppressors yield just concessions to the oppressed, they often do enable them to internalize rather than contest reforms once they are established.
Monday, October 06, 2008
"Obama also beats McCain on several lighter dimensions tested in the poll. A majority of 18- to 29-year-olds would choose Obama over McCain as a teacher, boss, drinking buddy, or advisor. McCain's only appeal on this level with young adults appears to be his personal life story as young adults are more likely to be interested in reading McCain's private diary than Obama's. While such items may seem trivial, basic likeability can be a key indicator of a presidential candidate's ability to win votes."
Here are the details:
Friday, October 03, 2008
Search for "al hsu":
in 2001: 70 results
in 2008: 13,800 results
Search for "albert y. hsu":
in 2001: 1 result
in 2008: 9,120 results
Search for "suburban christian":
in 2001: 368 results
in 2008: 22,700 results
So the Web has grown quite a bit in the last few years. No wonder I can't keep up with everything anymore. I also can't imagine life without Google. I use it basically every day, looking things up, fact checking, etc. I remember when I was an editorial intern in 1994 or '95, I actually called a museum to fact check something. And for a grad school media class, I had to go to the physical offices of a cable TV company to look up original air dates of a TV show season and episodes. Can't imagine doing that today.
The Atlantic recently wondered if Google is making us stupid. I wonder how Google is changing how people interact with information in general and books in particular. Not only are we less likely to look things up in a print book when we can just search Google or Wikipedia, it's also probably true that we're less likely to have the capacity for sustained analysis and argument because we've gotten used to short blog posts and snippets of information. I think it's significant that many blog entries I see are short quotes of a few sentences or paragraphs lifted from books - they might have nuggets of insight or wisdom, but they're isolated from the larger context or point that the book was making.
As I've gotten into my precourse readings for my grad school classes (after twelve years away from formal coursework), I've been finding it challenging to carve out the time for book-length reading and study. And even in my daily work, where I'm working on book manuscripts all the time, I find myself constantly distracted by this or that little thing that somebody posts or links to on Facebook.
And Google has completely changed the whole notion of research. In the mid-'90s, For my master's thesis/first book, I was almost completely dependent on the physical library, books and journals for research. A decade later, for my suburban book, I had no end of leads, ideas and material from around the world, instantaneously available via Google. But the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming, and it was hard to know what to sift through and go after. Call it the law of unintended consequences. Google has been great for access to info, but we are all completely swamped, distracted and ADD as a result.
(I'd say more, but this post might already be longer than anybody cares to read.)
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Life with Elijah has been challenging but not unmanageable. He has had his share of doctors and therapists. But for the most part, he is a happy and healthy three-year-old who loves Blue's Clues and Signing Time DVDS, roughhousing with his older brother, saying "No!" and giving hugs.
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and the public needs to know that Down syndrome is not nearly as scary as many imagine. Recent articles in both the American Journal of Medical Genetics and Prenatal Diagnosis report that more than 90 percent of pregnancies prenatally diagnosed as Down syndrome are terminated. As prenatal testing becomes normative, expectant couples may be more likely to abort babies who are not exactly what they had hoped for.
Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, which bring abled and disabled people together under one roof, warns in Living Gently in a Violent World that in a few years there may be no more children with Down syndrome in France because they will have all been aborted. In China, babies with disabilities are often abandoned. Extremist groups in the Middle East have even used people with mental disabilities as unwitting suicide bombers. The church must advocate on behalf of those most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Care for the disabled is a global justice issue.
The 2000 U.S. Census found that 19.4 percent of the population is affected by physical or intellectual disability. One in 140 children now has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the 2007 Annual Review of Public Health. Cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, spina bifida, Alzheimer's, and a host of other conditions affect millions. If you don't currently know someone with a disability, chances are that you will.
[Go here for the rest of the article.]
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Thanks, Elizabeth - it's been fun for me too!
I think that historically, evangelicals have championed overseas missions in a way that has not been true with domestic urban ministry. We've romanticized the heroic overseas missionary, going to the far corners of the world. At the same time we've had something of an anti-city bias. Evangelicals have tended to view cities and urban centers as dens of iniquity and evil. And part of this has been affected by America's racial history and dynamics; even though both suburbs and cities are far more diverse today, there's still a cultural narrative that says that white folks live in the suburbs and other folks live in the cities, and thus suburban white churches have been nervous about urban connections/ministries because of their "otherness."
Friday, September 26, 2008
1) "I appreciate your thoughts on urban vs suburban living. What observations would you have for Christians who desire urban engagement but are hesitant because they feel they would be sacrificing things such as their children's education etc.?"
Relocation has of course been one of the hallmarks of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and they have long advocated that true transformation and urban renewal happens most when Christians incarnationally live in a local community rather than trying to minister by commuting in from a remote location. If someone is sensing the call to relocate but has doubts, I'd recommend reading books like Bob Lupton's Renewing the City and Randy White's Journey to the Center of the City and Encounter God in the City to get a good picture of both the challenges and the opportunities of relocating to an urban context. Both authors talk about how they've grappled with issues like parenting and education, and the short answer is that their kids have come out fine, with appreciation for the experience. And when Christians really inhabit a community and get involved in the local school districts, the education experience improves not only for their own children but for others as well.
As I say in the section on "Displacement" (pp. 184-86), relocation (in any direction!) needs to be discerned carefully. Sometimes taking baby steps of displacement (short-term trips, urban plunges, etc.) can be a catalyst for a larger lifestyle change and an opportunity to hear God's call to a new environment. And of course it's essential to have like-minded community and fellow travelers to help you in the discernment, displacement and relocation.
2) "In your book you address the mega church response to suburban life. Can you share some of your observations regarding the issue of 'church hopping' in these types of communities? Can you expound on the idea that anonymity is one reason these larger church communities are attractive to those with the suburban mentality?"
I'm not sure I have any significant observations about church hopping except that it happens. It's kind of a default way people find and change churches these days; we've long passed the era of denominational loyalty. I read a statistic some years ago that when couples get married, if they come from different denominational backgrounds, 9 times out of 10 they leave both traditions and start going to a third. In our consumer culture, people change churches and church hop just like they change brands of jeans or cars. If they have a strong sense of community and affinity with a church, they'll be more likely to stay - if not, they'll hop.
Regarding anonymity, I'd first note that anonymity tends to be a suburban cultural norm. We tend to be anonymous when going to the grocery store or the movie theatre. Even if we're regulars at a particular store or restaurant, often we won't ever see the same cashier or waiter. It's easy to slip in and out of places without connecting with anyone or having name recognition. So that's a cultural norm and unconscious expectation that many suburban church visitors bring with them when they visit churches.
Various church experts have noted that in many cases, certain kinds of visitors actually don't want to be greeted at church the first time. Many want to just slip into the back of an auditorium and watch the proceedings while they decide whether or not this particular church is their cup of tea. At smaller churches, it's more likely that an usher or greeter will make personal contact with a handshake or a conversation, and so megachurches with large worship spaces provide a more anonymous entry point for those who are initially wary of being approached. This is not how things should be, but this is generally how things are, at least for some.
So smaller and midsize churches can provide an alternative by genuinely welcoming visitors - some have said that for people to stick with a church, they need to be able to identify and recognize at least six or seven other people by their fourth visit. Sometimes this will be a self-selecting kind of thing, and people who want anonymity will naturally gravitate to the bigger churches, while those who want to connect and know and be known will go to smaller churches. But there's always a complex mix of dynamics going on in every situation.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Your question gets to the heart of some of the megachurch backlash that we've been seeing in recent years, as megachurch attendees start to wonder if the megachurch is really good for them and their community or not. Call it the law of unintended consequences at work. Megachurches do some (many) things very well, and that's why they're megachurches. They would not be what they are if they were not authentically ministering to lots of people on a large scale. But the fact that they create this "all inclusive Christian community" has its own unintended consequences in relocating the focus of Christian life and activity to the church facilities rather than incarnationally dispersed throughout local neighborhoods. Hence the multisite corrective I mentioned earlier.
I think the bottom line is that megachurches can do some things that smaller churches can't do, and smaller churches do some things that megachurches can't do, and we need both. Some people will be reached by megachurches that would never be reached by smaller churches, and vice versa. So there's a place for both in the suburban landscape. Churches of all sizes need to be aware of their own pitfalls and tendencies, and to guard against negative unintended consequences, like hiding from our communities, as you mention. If church time displaces us from really being rooted and involved in local neighborhoods, then we probably need to cut back on how much time we spend and invest at the church and rediscover ways to locate ministry and community life away from church.
One way that churches can determine their uniqueness and sense of calling is to explore their own history, identity, context, experience, and gift mix of current members. Every church has a particular story and a distinct way of being and doing church that is different from other churches in the area. One diagnostic that always gets a lot of good discussion is for church leaders and members to ask each other, "Why did you come to this church? Out of all the other churches in the area, why did you visit this one? Why did you stay? What did you find compelling about this particular church?" (I blogged earlier about some other questions that churches can ask themselves.)
How a church discerns its sense of call and vocation is a mysterious process much like it is for us as individuals. Over the years, we as individuals get a sense that God has created us in certain ways, with particular gifts and interests and aptitudes for certain kinds of work or ministry, and we prayerfully ask for God's guidance as he leads us into things that seem to be what he has called us to do. When we find those things, it's like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire - "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure." Likewise, God made our churches in particular ways, and each church is uniquely positioned to do some things well, and when we do those things, we feel God's pleasure.
Books like David Benner's The Gift of Being Yourself can be read and discussed congregationally and applied to a church context. Also, resources like Good to Great (and the companion Good to Great and the Social Sectors) are helpful in determining what it is that your church can be best at.
As far what suburban churches in particular should keep in mind, let me tag back to the previous post and say that suburban churches should understand their calling in relation to their particular suburban context. Your church exists for such a time and place as this. What is it about your particular church that is called to minister to this particular suburban context? Know thyself, and know thy context, and somewhere in the intersection of the two may be clues to your church's missional calling.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Great question. I think that every church can identify the systemic needs and issues in their particular community and neighborhood by doing some "field reconnaissance." One pastor I know (whose church is located in a Southern Californian suburban area with lots of changing demographics) talks about how every suburb has systemic issues, but they're often hidden below the surface, and it takes some work to sniff them out. Some ways you can do this:
- Visit and talk to social service agencies (whether governmental or nonprofit) serving your area. What needs do they see? What resources do they lack?
- Talk to public school teachers. If you have any teachers in your congregation, they may be some of your best "field agents" because they are on the ground, in the community, and they see what their students are facing. Teachers are often the first to see problems when students are struggling, and can often get a sense of trends in economic hardships, parental alcoholism or abuse, lack of health care, mortgage foreclosure, etc.
- Go to a city council meeting. I know, these can be mind-numbingly boring. But some people really get a kick out of them, and they can shed light on what systemic issues a community might be facing. If you have a policy-wonkish member of your congregation that loves debating politics, send them to a local city council meeting and have them invest their energies on a local level instead of just being concerned with national politics all the time. All politics is local, and often local concerns are far more bipartisan and less polarizing than national issues that can be all abstract and removed.
- Visit neighbors. Bill Hybels did this when starting Willow Creek, and he got a sense of what kind of people lived in his community and what concerned them. We can do the same today. It's unfashionable to go door-to-door these days, but maybe there are ways we can talk to people at parks or Starbucks, not with an evangelistic tract or a hokey "religious survey," but with genuine efforts to hear what people are grappling with locally and personally.
These are just initial steps, obviously, as I don't know that I can make specific recommendations for next steps without having a sense of the particularities of your actual context. And I'm going to wrap up this post because another question just got sent to me!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Good question and good point, Josh. You're of course quite right, that we should be asking, "How can we be consumed by Christ?" I think you can ask both questions side-by-side. One is more practical, one is more spiritual. My question "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" was in the context of the discussion of consumption. Because consumption is unavoidable, we can't simply say, "Don't consume." We have to consume. So we have to ask how we can do it most Christianly.
And, as Andy Crouch points out in Culture Making, some cultural goods are meant to be consumed and received with gratitude. He writes, "There are many cultural goods for which by far the most appropriate response is to consume. When I make a pot of tea or bake a loaf of bread, I do not condemn it as a worldly distraction from spiritual things, nor do I examine it for its worldview and assumptions about reality. I drink the tea and eat the bread, enjoying them in their ephemeral goodness, knowing that tomorrow the tea will be bitter and the bread will be stale" (p. 92). But he goes on to say that Christians consume far more than we ought, and that consumption should not be our default posture. Consumption is an occasional gesture to be used appropriately, but it is not our fundamental stance toward all of life.
So consumption should not be the center of the Christian's identity, and I think you're getting at the question of whether even using the framework of consumption is in some way capitulation to consumer culture's values and worldview. That's a very good point - Christians should subvert and transform consumer language and find more thoroughly Christian language and vocabulary.
As far as the specifics of your question, "What can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God?" I think a starting point is a fundamental reorientation of rooting our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God as opposed to as consumers in this consumer culture. Our primary identity should be as followers of Jesus and heralds of his good news. Once that reorientation takes place, we can begin to resist the idolatry and competing allegiances of our consumer culture. We can employ any number of spiritual disciplines and practices to cultivate a deeper commitment to God, which of course can vary depending on your theological tradition and ecclesial background. (I point to disciplines of creativity, generosity and simplicity, but of course there's much more that could be said than just these.) We can affirm the theological truths that God truly is shepherd and that he is our fundamental source of provision. Trusting God as shepherd is a theological orientation that runs counter to our cultural consumer narratives that we need to provide for ourselves via our own consumption.
One quibble, though, with the language of "being consumed by Christ." Sometimes this comes across as an overspiritualization, that we are so caught up in adoration of Christ that it's all we think about, that he consumes our every waking thought and whatnot. The language of "being consumed" can imply that we're consumed in the sense of something being consumed in a fire - used up, extinguished. I'm not sure that's the most helpful metaphor or image for Christian devotion or ministry. Better, I think, to talk in terms of being equipped, mobilized and deployed for God's good works, not just to be consumed up in some private act of devotion.
When we eat food, we consume it, but not just for the sake of consumption - the food fuels our bodies for activity and good work. When we fill up a car with gas, we consume the gas, but for a purpose, of transportation and getting us somewhere. Likewise, if we are consumed by Christ, it shouldn't be just exercising energy for our own personal spiritual benefit. It ought to be deployed outward, with some sort of missional purpose, that God is using us and our resources for some good ends. Ideally, we should all be fully devoted to Jesus, to "be consumed by him," but in the sense of living actively for the sake of the kingdom, in whatever ways he has called us and gifted us to live.
Well, that's what comes to mind this morning. What do you think? Are there other ways to counter consumer culture and to be consumed by God in positive, constructive ways?