Monday, October 27, 2008

Matthew 11 on learning from Jesus and finding rest

In the midst of a crazy time juggling work, school and life in general, this past weekend I experienced a bit of an oasis in the midst of the storm. I was at the Invite 08 Soul Care for Leaders retreat/conference, hosted at Willow Creek and cosponsored by the Spiritual Formation Alliance and Soul Care. I was there leading a workshop on spiritual formation in the suburbs, and I was grateful for the gift of a time of retreat, worship and restoration.

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

Jack Mezirow on transformative learning

I’m in a class on critical thinking, and one of our readings is from educational theorist Jack Mezirow’s book Learning as Transformation. Here are a few snippets that jumped out at me as having particular relevance to us this election season:

“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

"I Shall Not Want" sermon, and what happened when Elijah broke the DVD player

A week ago I preached at our church, and the MP3 audio for the sermon is now available online at our church's website. The sermon (dated 10/11/08) was titled "I Shall Not Want," based on the lectionary text of Psalm 23 (and a little riffing off the other texts of Ex. 32 and Phil. 4). I was asked to fill in on somewhat short notice, so I repurposed a fair amount of my suburban workshop material on consumer culture. If you have a half hour to spare, you can listen to the sermon and get a summary of my book's chapters on consumerism and branding.

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

Debate camp flashbacks and lessons

In anticipation of tonight's third and final presidential debate, the New York Times has an article titled "Debate Camp," which triggered memories of the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school when I went to debate camp. I was in high school debate, and I debated for two years (and lettered in debate - how geeky is that?) before dropping out senior year to make more room for other activities (like newspaper and theatre - how geeky is that?).

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

Obama on Niebuhr

Stumbled across this David Brooks comment this morning: "I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I'm getting nowhere with the interview, it's late in the night, he's on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he's cranky. Out of the blue I say, 'Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?' And he says, 'Yeah.' So i say, 'What did Niebuhr mean to you?' For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say."

(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:

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 na├»ve 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.

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:
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.

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.

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.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Young adults want Obama for a professor but want to read McCain's diary

A new Gallup poll reports that young voters ages 18-29 are more likely to vote Obama than McCain. No surprise there. But something that jumped out at me from the report was this paragraph:

"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

Google, then and now

For Google's tenth birthday, they created a way to search their oldest available index, from January 2001. I did a few vanity searches to see the difference over the past seven years. The results:

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

Kingdom Sightings: Surprised by Disability

[My October column for Christianity Today has now been posted online. Here are the first few paragraphs.]

Surprised by Disability
Why the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible.
When my wife, Ellen, and I received prenatal confirmation that our second son would have Down syndrome, we were concerned but also relieved. Why? Because a previous diagnosis was more severe: that our son's condition might have been, as the doctor put it, "incompatible with life." He told us that we could terminate the pregnancy, but we chose to "do no harm" and prepare for our child's birth, come what may. Several months later, we joyously and nervously welcomed Elijah Timothy Hsu into the world.

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.]