Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tom Wright on human flourishing

The Following Christ grad/faculty/professionals conference wraps up today. It's been an invigorating and exhausting week, with lots of great sessions and meetings with folks. Tom Wright has been our main plenary speaker (as he was in 1998 - free audio here), and he's been speaking on the theme of human flourishing through the lens of Colossians. He cited Irenaeus that the glory of God is a living human being, and that humans act as something of "angled mirrors" at a 45-degree angle that both reflect God's image/glory to the world as well as reflect worship back to God.

Random snippets from my notes: In keeping with his themes in Surprised by Hope, Wright continued to emphasize that salvation is not just about an escape ticket to heaven and merely saving souls, and that we are not rescued out of the world, but are called to flourish within the world. The world needs wise and wisely flourishing humans. The more full of God we are, the more human we are. What it takes to be truly human is wisdom. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is personified as delighting in human beings and invites us to come and learn how to be genuinely human.

Colossians 1 shows that Jesus is the personification of wisdom, that everything in Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 is embodied in Christ. Col. 2:3 says that all wisdom and truth are in Christ, which points to the significance of all disciplines of study, whether physics or music or literature or sociology. There's truly a delight and joy in academic study and discovery, and these are expressions of human flourishing.

Also, human flourishing is not merely blissful enjoyment of human experience. It also includes bearing suffering. We bear the cross and take on our share of human suffering. Wright described the British Museum's "Tree of Life" exhibit, which is a sculpture of flourishing life created out of decommissioned weapons. Even in the midst of pain and death, God is at work to restore the glory of humankind. And the hope of glory is not escape from this world, but Christ in us, the global church, who inhabit and permeate the whole world and herald his good and glorious kingdom.

So what does it mean for me to be a flourishing human? At work, in my studies, in my family, at church? And how best to contribute to the flourishing of others? It's not merely that I delight in stuff that I think is fun and shun things that I find difficult or boring. As an Enneagram Seven, I tend to evaluate things in terms of whether I find joy and delight in them (rather than a sense of what is important, or right or good or strategic). I'm trying to figure out what might be a more holistic, wise way of living. And to not merely flourish in a secular sense of human accomplishment, but in a biblical sense of being filled with a sense of God-given vocation, calling and even cross-bearing. So maybe I should not do stuff just because I think it's fun (as much as I enjoy the new official Force FX blue lightsaber I got for Christmas) but rather think in terms of where I can best contribute to the flourishing of not just myself, but of others around me. Much to contemplate as we enter a new year. Happy 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Michael Lindsay and Andy Crouch on power and privilege

I'm now at the Following Christ 08 conference for grad students, faculty and professionals, cosponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity Press. It's kind of an off-year Urbana-like event for folks in the academy and professions. I was at the previous FC conferences in 1998 and 2002, and both were quite significant. 

This year's theme is "Human Flourishing," and prior to the conference proper were a number of day-ahead events. The one I attended was on "Exploring Privilege and Redeeming Power," hosted by the Professional Schools Ministries department of IVCF. This pre-conference brought together people from various disciplines to discuss different dimensions of the use of power. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, gave a summary of his book. A few nuggets:

- Of the 360 Christian leaders he interviewed for his research, only one had ever been visited in the workplace by a local church pastor. Lindsay encouraged pastors to make pastoral visits to their church members' workplaces.

- The greatest indicator of a leader's character is how they treat an assistant.

- Disciplines that can help Christian professionals guard against the trappings of power: sabbath keeping (which is a recognition of human finitude and limits), deep friendship/accountability, humility/integrity, and using power/privilege in service to others.

Then yesterday morning, Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, gave a presentation in which he made a distinction between privilege and power. The track had been using the terms somewhat synonymously, but Andy differentiated them this way: Cultural/creative power is the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. But privilege is the accumulated benefits of past successful exercises of power. In some ways, privilege is coasting on previous actions, whether yours or someone else's.

Others in the track had argued that Jesus divested himself of power, but Andy pushed back against that and made a more careful distinction. Jesus retains power but does not exploit privilege. Jesus would certainly exercise power in feeding five thousand or stilling the storm, but when people wanted to hail him and accord him further status, he divested himself of that privilege.

So too we are called to exercise cultural and creative power in responsible, generative, Christian ways, and to divest ourselves of privilege. Power involves the risk of creating new cultural goods. But privilege can tend to lead to a sense of safety, complacency and entitlement. If we find ourselves in positions of privilege, we should try to find ways to use it on behalf of others. Rather than coasting on past accomplishments, the challenge is to continually use our power to generate new opportunities and cultural goods for others.

This was particularly challenging, to think about how I might be "coasting" on my accumulated benefit/work of the past, and how I might take risks to exercise cultural power for the benefit of others. I'm always a bit ambivalent about discussions about privilege, because it makes me aware of how I might be outside certain spheres of privilege and status. I'm not from a pedigreed background, I didn't go to Ivy League schools, I don't move in upper crust circles. And yet I realize that I do have certain levels of power and privilege that are not available to others, whether in terms of access to education, networks, social capital, etc. It's weird to remember that I do have cultural power, and it's challenging to ponder how I might be a good steward of that power. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jesus was not born in a barn!

I just watched The Nativity Story movie, and it's not bad. But the movie perpetuates something of a myth - Mary and Joseph, alone in a cave stable, giving birth to baby Jesus. It's commonly assumed that Jesus was born in a stable or barn because the biblical text mentions that he was placed in a manger. But Ken Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:
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.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Who gives?

'Tis the season both for giving and for financial belt-tightening. The juxtaposition of economic recession and holiday gift-giving is interesting, because a number of recent reports are that a lot of us don't give very much in terms of charitable giving of any kind. Christianity Today's December cover story, "Scrooge Lives!" (by one of my authors, Rob Moll), highlights these facts:

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.

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:
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.

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.
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.)

At any rate, I'm sick of Excessmas already - bah, humbug. But I'm glad that Christmas is almost here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: Family Ties

My December column for Christianity Today has been posted online. Here are the first few paragraphs.

Family Ties
Sometimes relatives differ, and that's okay.

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

On digital book readers and the future of the book

For decades folks have been lamenting the impending death of the book, and plateauing book sales in recent years have reinforced these fears. New technology like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader are attempting to be for books what the iPod has become for music. But it's doubtful that these devices will replace print books anytime soon. I just came across Christine Rosen's article "People of the Screen," and she makes these observations about the new Amazon Kindle:
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.

. . . 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.
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.

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

Is this life worth living?

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Wheaton College on the topic of grieving a suicide, because of the suicides of three recent alumni over the past year and a half. The talk hasn't been posted online yet [Update: now available here], but here's an excerpt on whether life is worth living that relates a little to the Advent season:

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.