Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ted Ward, Groundhog Day and cultural impact

As part of my PhD program, I have the opportunity to meet with veteran educator Ted Ward, who played a key role in developing Trinity's PhD programs in educational studies and intercultural studies. Over lunch today, he told our group of doctoral students that back in the 1930s his father was a publicist for the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Many towns in the area also featured groundhogs, but Ward's father helped establish their town as the groundhog capital. The result is what we know today as Groundhog Day.

This was fascinating to me because any of those Pennsylvania towns could have done something with groundhogs, but Ward's father did something intentional to brand their town and create a cultural phenomenon with lasting impact. This seems analogous to Ted Ward's own influence in educating a generation of leaders in missiology and Christian education. Many current professors and church leaders did their doctoral work under Ted, including Compassion International president Wesley Stafford, TEDS president Craig Williford, Wheaton missions prof Evvy Campbell, Biola prof Klaus Issler, and several of my IVP authors, including Duane Elmer, Steve Hoke (coauthor of the recently released Global Mission Handbook) and Jim Plueddemann, whose new book Leading Across Cultures just came in from the printer yesterday.

Every February 2, and every time someone watches the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, we experience something of the cultural legacy of Ted Ward's father. And every student or reader of Ted Ward's students continues to experience the effects of Ted's educational thinking and influence, even two or three generations afterward. I'm grateful for the chance to learn from Ted and have him speak into my thinking, and I'm challenged to contribute to the shaping of lives in ways that will influence not just the present but also generations to come.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

A couple of years ago I read A. J. Jacobs's book The Year of Living Biblically, which I enjoyed but critiqued as being a rather individualistic exercise rather than rooted in actual communities of spiritual practice. Well, I just read a book that follows Jacobs's lead but ups the ante. Kevin Roose, who was a research assistant for Jacobs on Year of Living Biblically, left his liberal Ivy League college to spend a semester at the fundamentalist/evangelical Liberty University, exploring how life is lived and faith is practiced at Jerry Falwell's school. The result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.

I loved this book. It was a delight to read, laugh-out-loud hilarious at points, poignant and thought-provoking at others. A nominal Quaker who does not self-identify as "born again," Roose is tremendously fair to the folks at Liberty, as he finds himself slowly becoming acculturated to the conservative Christian subculture. He discovers that students at Liberty are not all the religious wingnut stereotypes many outsiders imagine them to be; they're just people, with all of the complexities and foibles that mark the human condition.

What's fascinating is that Roose enters into regular rhythms of Christian practice such as prayer, reading Scripture, participating in worship services and sharing in small groups. The result is that he starts to see things from the point of view of his Liberty classmates, so much so that when he visits his secular relatives he feels odd not praying before dinner and wonders if people he sees are saved or not. He becomes far more understanding of Christian belief and even becomes sympathetic to Falwell himself, despite disagreeing strongly with him on many issues. Roose is a model of civility, and his participant-observer exercise in undercover journalism should help believers and unbelievers alike understand each other better.

I have been noticing in recent years that most arguments in religion or theology, as well as many attempts in evangelism and witness, go nowhere because people on different sides have different "plausibility structures" that make certain beliefs possible or impossible. In many ways, we are socialized into or out of our beliefs; we find ourselves in communities that support or reject our thinking, and we find new ideas more plausible when we are in subcultures or contexts where such beliefs are the norm. Kevin Roose dared to leave his previous context to immerse himself in a conservative evangelical world that his friends and families thought outrageous and even dangerous. The result was a certain degree of change in belief. It wasn't a dramatic Damascus-road conversion from 1 to 10, but perhaps more of a subtle shift from maybe a 3 to a 5 or 6.

I don't consider Liberty or Falwell my particular tribe; I find them to be more conservative than the moderate evangelical circles I usually move in. But Roose's book helped me see the Liberty community as real people and not just caricatures. And Roose himself is honest about his own doubts, objections and questions, giving Christian readers keen insights into how non-evangelicals hear and perceive evangelicals. This would be a great book for Christian and non-Christian friends to read and discuss together.

Part of me thinks this book should be made into a movie, though another part of me thinks that a Hollywood treatment would probably ruin the experience. Reading this book was an engrossing, immersive experience, one that evoked memories of my own undergrad years at a conservative Christian college. The Unlikely Disciple is a gripping narrative, and not just because you want to find out if he ends up with the cute evangelical Tina Fey-lookalike girl. This book is probably the closest that many folks will ever get to attending a school like Liberty, and it's amazing how Kevin Roose makes you wish the semester wouldn't fly by so quickly.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Urbana experience

This December 27-31 is Urbana 09, InterVarsity's 22nd student missions conference. So right now I'm in the midst of sending a slew of Urbana-related books to the printer and helping to plan things for the onsite bookstore. If you're thinking of attending, registration fees bump up on Oct. 17, so now is a good time to register. Urbana is an amazing, life-changing experience. Below is a testimony I shared with my IVP colleagues in 2003 in anticipation of Urbana 03, reflecting on my experiences at Urbana 93:

I went to Urbana 93 as a senior in college, and it was a defining experience in my life. I got scholarships from my InterVarsity chapter, college and church, which combined was enough to cover all the convention fees and travel costs! So I knew God wanted me there.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal entry for Monday, Dec. 27, 1993: “The auditorium was packed to the hilt with over 18,000 students singing ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.’ The worship experience brought me to tears. The theme for this year’s Urbana is ‘God So Loves the World,’ with the focus being on God’s extravagant love for us. And wow, I was overwhelmed with a tangible sense of the power of God’s ultimate, infinite love. All of the thousands of us joined hands in prayer for us to know the love of God, for it to be infused into our lives, and for it to empower us to minister to this world. It was just awesome.” And then I note, “Afterward I picked up a packet of books.”

The next day I discovered the IVP bookstore. I was already an IVP Book Club member and literature coordinator for my IV chapter, so I already had lots of IVP books. But a whole store of IVP books! And all these bargains and specials and packages! Kid in a candy store. My journal entry from Dec. 28 says, “After lunch I journeyed to the Armory, where exhibits of mission agencies and organizations were set up, and the awesome coolest thing was a huge IVP bookstore with thousands upon thousands of IVP books on dozens of shelves. I was in IVP heaven. I bought over 30 IVP books for $93.50. I just went nuts and hauled back a huge box full of IVP books. It was awesome cool.” And my journal says that I didn’t make it to any seminars that day because I spent all afternoon in the Armory. And that was just the first day. The bookstore was selling the BSTs with the old covers at clearance prices. I bought them all. I bought every bargain book available. And this was the year that the books of the day were these shrink-wrapped packages with four books and a video. I bought every package. You know how they say that Urbana is like drinking from a firehose? In my case, it was a firehose that was spewing IVP books. All the money that the scholarships saved me? It went to IVP.

Then there was the convention program itself. Several things hit me during the plenary sessions. First, a tentmaking missionary in China talked about how she had gone to the most isolated village in China. They had gone as far as the train would go, then by car as far as the road would go, then on foot as far as they could go to this totally remote place. When they got to this village, the kids came running up and said, “Americans! Are you Americans? Do you have Coca-Cola?” And they said, “No, we don’t have Coca-Cola. We’re here to tell you about Jesus. Do you know who Jesus is?” They shook their heads and said no, we don’t know who Jesus is. Then the missionary said, we were in the remotest part of the world, and people had heard the name of Coca-Cola, but they had never heard the name of Jesus Christ. Wow.

Then on Thursday the 30th, there was an offering for IFES. The person leading the offering time challenged the delegates by saying, “Many of you have bought things for yourselves this week. We challenge you give as much to this offering for others as you have spent on yourself.” At that point, I had spent over $150 just on IVP books and a sweatshirt. So I wrote a check for $150 for IFES.

A few more journal entries. Dec. 31. “I went to a seminar by Dr. James Sire, whose IVP books I have a lot of. But I was just so drained, I fell asleep during the session.”

Jan. 1, 1994. “I just celebrated the new year and the end of Urbana with 18,000 people! Tonight’s worship closing session was absolutely awesome. Thousands have committed themselves to lives of Christian ministry, service and mission, across the country and around the world, on campuses, to students, to children, to Muslims, Arabs, homeless, poor, urban centers, Buddhists, everything imaginable. It’s just staggering to think about what kind of impact these 18,000 people can have on this world and for the kingdom of God.”

And after I got home, Jan. 2. “I showed Ellen my Urbana stuff and gave her an Urbana NRSV Bible, an Operation World, and an IVP book on dating that I also got for myself. I figured it might be nice for both of us to have. I showed her the Urbana summary video and told her all about the week.”

On my commitment card, I’d committed to getting missions training and reading books on missions. All week I wrestled with how God might use me in missions. Little did I know that three years later, my job would be to help plan the IVP bookstore at Urbana 96! God is good.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Reflections of a Chicago 2016 volunteer

I've loved the Olympics ever since I was a kid. I had a knit cap with the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games logo, and I remember watching the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, especially a closing montage set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." My grandfather lived in LA at the time, and he went to the Olympics and brought me my first Olympic pins and flags and other memorabilia. I've wanted to attend an Olympics ever since. But they've always seemed so geographically and economically out of reach. Until I heard that Chicago was a candidate city for the 2016 Summer Games. A chance to have the Olympics in my metropolitan backyard!

So over the last year or so, I've been an occasional volunteer for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid. My son and I held up signs and flags in the rain during an IOC evaluation visit and handed out wristbands at pro soccer games. I distributed literature and helped out with some demos of Olympic and Paralympic sports at events. I've been an enthusiastic backer of the bid, even though I'm fully aware of the financial and infrastructure challenges they would likely bring to the region. My sense was that they'd be a mixed bag of pros and cons, but on the whole I felt like it would be a net benefit to the Chicagoland area. I liked volunteering for the 2016 bid in that it got me outside of my usual circles and activities and let me be part of a larger community with a common vision and interest.

Like many Chicagoans, I was disappointed with the news this morning that Chicago was eliminated in the first round of voting. But that's okay - Chicagoans are used to disappointment, as any Cubs fan will say. On the other hand, I'm thrilled for Rio de Janeiro and for what the decision represents. It's the first time the Olympics will be held in South America. Brazil was the only country of the top ten global economies never to have hosted a Games. This selection seems to be another indicator of the spotlight shifting away from the U.S. and toward the global south. North Americans should get used to this shift. The future of international business, geopolitics and the church is increasingly globalizing. The global south, the BRIC countries, the emerging economies of the world are no longer just potential consumers of Western goods or the objects of North American missionaries; they are subjects in their own right and mutual partners in global commerce and mission.

As I wrote in a CT column last year, I love the Olympics for its peaceful international celebration and cooperation, which seems to me a sign of the kingdom of God. Of course, the actual preparations for the Games are fraught with potential problems and injustices, such as the displacement of the poor. Julie Clawson, author of our new book Everyday Justice, blogged a while ago that Chicago may have been less problematic than the other candidate cities and that death squads in Rio may be used to clear out unwanted populations. Here's to hoping that Rio will take the 2016 Games as an opportunity to protect its people and to develop a more just society.

And in the meantime, I will recalibrate my own hopes of seeing an Olympics in person someday. Now Vancouver 2010 feels a little closer and doable than London 2012 or Sochi 2014, but still much more difficult to get to than a Chicago Olympics would have been. My wife, who works with Brazilian publishers, would love to go to Rio 2016. We can always dream, but if not, we'll at least get to watch the Games on TV.