Archive for August, 2010

Whose Baby Is It, Anyways?

August 18, 2010

For those of you who have been reading this blog for any length of time, you might be inclined to wonder if there is a pattern to my writings.  If there is, I’m not aware of it, won’t take responsibility for it, and probably won’t figure out a way to cash in on it assuming that is an option.  I think that one of the things I’m very fascinated by is the gradual change in private/public interactions and responsibilities.  What are the underlying philosophies and mindsets that are pushing themselves to the forefront in our culture, and what impact does that have on us as citizens?

Case in point, this story about a flight attendant, a mother and her baby (and possibly other family members).  There was some sort of encounter (the nature of which is in dispute) regarding a mother allegedly slapping her crying toddler on a plane flight.  There are all sorts of interesting factors in this extremely short report.  
For instance, the report uses the plural “parents”, but makes no mention of another parental figure.  It also refers to the “family”, but makes no mention if there were other children present.  The story mentions that passengers complained, but doesn’t specify whether they complained about the crying or the slapping.  How is slapping defined here?  The report specifies an open hand, but doesn’t indicate what sort of power was being used.  Given the cramped nature of airline seating, it’s hard to imagine the mother was really wailing away at her child – which is good for any number of reasons.
It wasn’t just enough for the flight attendant to either remove or offer to assist with the child.  Police were involved as a “precaution” for the child.  But it was determined that it was an “isolated” incident.  Does that mean it appears that the mother never slaps her child otherwise?  That she has never slapped the child on an airplane before?  That the complaining passengers and flight attendant were acting uncharacteristically?  
The final quote of the report is also interesting.  The Albuquerque Airport Police Commissioner affirmed the act of the flight attendant (whatever it was) because it “neutralized the situation.  It calmed everyone down.”  What in the world does this mean?  Did the baby stop crying?  Were the parents calmed to know that passengers were complaining to the flight attendant?  Were the passengers calmed to be faced with a police interrogation upon landing?  Were the other passengers calmed down knowing that the family was going to be interrogated?  What – and who – was exactly calmed by this whole exchange?  If it was so calming, why are there news reports on it?  I’m pretty darn sure that somebody is not feeling very calmed by all of this.  
I’ve flown on airplanes with small children, whether my own or in proximity to another passenger’s young child.  For any parent worth their salt, this is a stressful situation.  We understand that crying and screaming children are unpleasant for other passengers (and us) to listen to.  We also understand that when a child decides to scream or cry, there are only a limited number of options likely to calm the child down quickly & effectively.  Those methods will vary from child to child, and may very well not be the options that another parent would choose, or would find effective for their own child.  
Our culture is moving towards an attitude that any sort of physical intervention with a child (slapping or spanking) is just as inappropriate as beating and abusing a child (which is never appropriate!).  Any form of physical disciplining is tantamount to child abuse.  States are considering bans on spanking.  Researchers have mixed opinions on the effectiveness of spanking, often those opinions seem to drive the nature (and results) of their research.  
This article clearly leaves the impression (cemented by the final quote) that the mother was acting inappropriately with her child.  Judgement has been passed in this report, and the flight attendant is the hero.  I’d be interesting in seeing fuller accounts of this incident.  I’m never in favor of child abuse of any kind, but I do not equate corporal punishment with child abuse.  Abuse is simply that – an inappropriate use of an otherwise appropriate thing.  
An equally important issue is what the appropriate role of bystanders (or bysitters, in this case) is.  What if the mother wasn’t abusing  her child, yet the flight attendant had to deal with complaints by passengers who happened to have a very anti-spanking attitude?  What if the flight attendant held similar views that would arbitrarily designate any form of physical intervention with a child as inappropriate?  How are flight attendants trained to deal with situations like this?  What is the official policy, or should there be one?
Lots of questions from a teeny-tiny report.  Thoughts?

The Year of Living Biblically – Sort Of

August 17, 2010

This video is worth watching.

Not because I agree completely (or even mostly) with what the speaker relates.  It’s just interesting for the questions that it attempts to raise and answer.
The speaker, A.J. Jacobs, is a journalist as he tells us at the start of his talk.  If you’re interested, the book which forms the basis for this talk is available on Amazon.  I haven’t read it, but I just might, someday, though I suspect I have gotten much of the meaning from the book just in this short talk.
I thought that there were several interesting comments in this talk.  First, his brief treatment of how our behavior really does influence our thinking and emotions.  In other words, what we do changes who we are on the inside – for those who find some of the Old Testament’s rules on how to live and dress confusing, this is a good thing to remember.  The external serves not just as a reminder but a conditioner for the internal.  Perhaps the author could have remembered this a bit more as he talks about not denying the irrational towards the 14:30 mark in the video.  Just because it doesn’t make sense right away, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a very good purpose.
Throughout, the author definitely demonstrates that he’s using his 20th century agnostic understanding of the world to judge the Bible and determine (as he talks about at the 16:00 mark) what to follow and what not to.  Assuming that it isn’t God’s inspired Word (9:30), changes the very nature of  what it says and how one responds to it.  It allows one to judge areas that you don’t agree with as ‘barbaric’ (9:00), and others as wise.  It determines what you decide can be taken literally and what can’t (9:45).  It affects what you’re willing to believe (10:50).  
Yet it was nice to see that Jacobs experienced quite a few pleasant surprises in this endeavor that is obviously meant as tongue-in-cheek, and ultimately a repudiation of what the Bible says precisely because it seems so irrational.  He learned the benefit of being thankful (11:15), though he probably didn’t and doesn’t have any idea of who to be thankful to.  He still found himself focused on all the good things that happen each day rather than the few bad things.  He learned the value of being a “reverent agnostic”, (12:10), and not denigrating the idea of the divine or sacred, even if you yourself are not certain you believe these things exist.  He learned firsthand, as a workaholic, the benefits of keeping the Sabbath.  And in this, I suspect that he experienced the blessings of the Sabbath far more as God intended them than most church-going Christians do.  He learned that stereotyping Christians is misleading (13:30), and that just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it has no meaning or purpose or value (14:30).  
His conclusion is one based on his lack of understanding in how to approach the Bible.  He concludes that you have to pick and choose what to follow (16:00).  So he would prefer to choose to follow passages about love and compassion, and ignore passages with difficult things to say about how we treat one another (sexual laws, punitive directives, etc.).  If he could have understood that much of the minute regulations of the Old Testament (according to Christians) were for a particular place and time (the theocracy of Israel, which formally ended in 70AD with the final destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora), while the larger issues that those specific directives dealt with remain valid, he might have found it less confusing.  He might have been able to see that while we aren’t to stone people to death today, the actions that would have earned them stoning 2500 years ago are still equally problematic and dangerous today, both to them as an individual as well as to human community on a larger scale.  
I commend Jacobs for wanting to take the Bible seriously on one level, though he was clearly not equipped to really do so.  If he had believed that the Bible was more than just the arbitrary (or intentional) edits and changes and tweaks of generations of people (9:30), he probably would have been better able to take more seriously the goals of some of the Levitical laws.  He would have better understood the relationship which the Bible assumes – that we are Creations who need guidance in how to live our lives.  
I wish more Christians (myself included!) took more seriously the idea that we really need to live out our faith in tangible, expressible ways, some of which are inconvenient and frustrating.  

Cool on Whose Terms?

August 16, 2010

It probably seems sorta ‘duh’-like to mention this, but it’s really hard to outcool someone on that person’s terms.  You can’t imagine someone being cooler than The Fonze, for example, by trying to mimic him.  It just looks pathetic.  You aren’t going to usurp the original, and in the meantime you lose the chance to know who and what you are.  Observers pity you, and not in a good way.

Churches would do well to remember this.  We have an identity and a mission and a purpose that has been given to us.  If we forsake this in an attempt to compete with popular culture, everybody loses.  It’s a competition we aren’t going to win.  But that’s ok.  We don’t have to win.  It’s not our job.  This essay is a timely reminder of that.  Shame on us for having forgotten in the first place.

Taste, Not Tolerance

August 14, 2010

Unless you’ve been in a cave the past few months, you’re probably aware that there is an effort underway to build a mosque (a Muslim house of worship) and Islamic center very close to the 9/11 site, former home of the World Trade Towers.  The story has been in progress for some time, but has recently burst to light now that it appears it really is going forward and city officials are making decisions regarding whether or not it’s going to happen.

Of course, the intelligentsia has been hard at work, weighing in their support of the endeavor in the name of tolerance and open-mindedness.  The argument goes more or less that denying the Muslims the right to build a house of worship next to the 9/11 site is the equivalent of religious intolerance, and is tantamount to saying that all Muslims are terrorists.  Our president has (not surprisingly) just lent his support to the rationale of freedom of religion in this situation.  While he claims he has not expressed support for this particular project, he has effectively equated this particular project to an issue with freedom of religion, had the City of New York decided not to move forward with the project.
If the issue was really about religious tolerance there would be a case to be made here.  But it isn’t.  Muslims are free to build their worship buildings most anywhere they like.  Many of them are in New York City.   It is not an issue of intolerant Christians attempting to dominate Muslims.    It is, in fact, simply a matter of taste and decorum, something that is considerably lacking in our intellectual culture it would seem.
I have had the opportunity to see the 9/11 site on our recent nation-wide travels.  To stumble upon it accidentally, actually.  Less a pilgrim and more of a surprised tourist.  It’s a large area full of dirt and implements of construction at this point.  A hive of business and beepings and various other noises.  If there is an opposite icon from a mausoleum, this would be it.  All of the plans I’ve heard of for this spot are exactly the sort of repudiation of the suicide pilots’ misguided intentions, and exactly in keeping with a nation that built itself on industry – we’re going to build new places for business and work.  It’s a very busy place, and if you didn’t know that two jetliners had crumbled two huge skyscrapers here, you’d assume it was just another massive building project in a very, very busy city.
I’ve also had the opportunity on several occasions to see another site of mass destruction, the first German concentration/death camp, Dachau.  This is a decidedly different sort of place.  It is thoroughly a memorial to the dead.  Though often busy with tourists, there is an eerie silence that pervades the grounds.  Some buildings have been reconstructed.  There is a museum with artifacts, photos, and a very coldly-matter-of-fact film presentation of what happened here.  The war is over and gone for over 60 years now, but this monument to a brutal, sustained act of murder remains very simple and straightforward.
The nation of Germany has moved on from it’s Nazi period.  It has become a bulwark of Europe once again.  It is a beautiful country full of efficient and industrious people.  We visited Dachau with a young German couple we had met in Arizona a year or two earlier.  We were guests of them and their respective parents for over a week around Easter time in 2001.  I ached for the two of them as we exited the film at Dachau.  They were both born decades after the atrocity, but their sense of collective guilt was incredible.  That their people should perpetrate such an atrocity was an affront and embarrassment even to these two Germans in their mid-20’s.  
There is nothing at Dachau that attempts to mitigate what happened there.  What happened is a matter of history books and the painful memories of survivors and those who lost their loved ones there.  It cannot be undone.  It cannot be softened.  There is no attempt to clarify that it wasn’t an act representative of the whole German people, or to affix and limit blame to a specific regime or group of individuals.  Those trials are done and gone, by and large.  Nothing remains but the simple fact that people were killed here by others who did not consider those they killed worthy of living.
This is what happened at the site of the World Trade Centers on 9/11.  It is a matter of history books and the memories of those who barely escaped and those who deal with the loss of their loved ones every day.  It is the matter for a city and community that deals with the fallout of that event, literally, in the continued health claims and challenges of responders and distant bystanders.  It is a matter for the collective memory of our nation, and for a generation or more it will be their defining moment, the equivalent of the Kennedy assassination or the space shuttle disaster.  People will ask one another do you remember what you were doing when you first heard about 9/11?.  And people will stop and pause and will get that look on their face as their reels or bits unwind on their eyelids, and for the span of a few seconds they are there again.  Near the radio, at the television set, on the Internet.  Watching, aghast, unbelieving, shocked.  
It is not an event that can be mitigated or softened.  It is what it is.  And while humans are prone to painting with broad brush strokes, most people would at the very least grudgingly admit that not every Muslim is a terrorist intent on destroying American lives.  But some were.  And discredited though their ideology and theology may be (though that’s a point I’d hardly agree with), what does remain of them is the shadow of their actions, and at the risk of that shadow extending further or reappearing elsewhere we remember in some fashion what happened.
There is no German Cultural Center at Dachau.  It would be in the grossest taste to assume that such a thing was appropriate there.  There is no German Cultural Center at Flanders Field, or anywhere else where a few took the lives of many, regardless of the rationale.  Those who seek to build an Islamic Center and Mosque in the shadow of the Twin Towers are mistaken.  Perhaps they mistakenly feel that this will demonstrate to people that what a few people did in the name of many people was not representative of the many.  Perhaps they seek to be understood.  Perhaps that’s a laudable goal.  Lord knows we could use more understanding, even if we do not see eye to eye.  
But to do it there, to insist that a neighborhood and a city and a nation that suffered a huge loss of life and faith and trust and hope in the actions of a handful of men should face a shrine to the religion that the men claimed as their own as they piloted people to their death is in the worst of taste.  It accomplishes the exact opposite of it’s intentions, which would seem clear by the fairly universal (except for liberal intellectuals) rejection of the idea by the American people.  Once again we’re being demanded to abandon our common sense of decorum and respect in favor of showing special respect to someone else.  Our suffering is to be subdued to justify others.  
Of course Muslims have the right to build in the shadow of the Twin Towers.  It isn’t a question of their legal ability, but of the appropriateness of exercising that right.  It is not appropriate, and we would do well as a nation to observe how others before us have dealt with commemorating massive injustice and loss.  

A Minor Offense

August 12, 2010

I think I’ve talked before here about our culture’s growing trend of sexualizing young children through inappropriate sexuality in media.  Thanks to my colleague Travis via Facebook for this little article from an industry insider who is speaking out against a trend he undoubtedly helped to facilitate if not create.

Let me be critical for a moment before I wholeheartedly agree with him.
This trend is nothing new.  When I was younger it was Madonna singing Like a Virgin and other very explicit lyrics that was all the rage.  Prince was steaming up the airwaves with any number of sexually explicit songs.  Yes, there is a sort of innocence that seems to surround this now, but I know that’s merely the effect of having grown up with it.  It’s been a long time indeed since the Everly Brothers sang Wake Up Little Suzie , and seemed to genuinely imply that all that had happened was they had fallen asleep.  
But things have changed.
Television started this, linking music indelibly to a musician’s physicality – consider Elvis’ controversial hips .  This was accelerated with the widespread emphasis on music videos that really exploded with the advent of MTV (music videos have been around in limited forms since movies themselves became more prevalent, growing gradually more pervasive since the Beatles).  But none of this is incidental or accidental, either.  Artists do not exist in a vacuum.  They are crafted, groomed, styled.  Some do it themselves.  Others have others that help them or influence them heavily.  There’s a massive emphasis on a visual appeal, a unique look.  And if you want to get people’s attention, you need to be good looking in face and body.  Nobody wants to watch an ugly person unless they’re exquisitely talented.  Mama Cass Elliot would probably have a hard time getting an agent today.    
In a culture that depends on buying and selling for it’s viability, new markets are always being sought.  Some of these are geographic like the explosion of sales activity in places like China and India where growing economies and mind-blowing numbers of people have manufacturers drooling at the profit possibilities.  Some markets are more demographically driven, and one of these demographics is age.  I think that was has been discovered is that if you sell one generation of people on something, they will be inclined to inculcate their offspring similarly.  One way this is playing out is in the area of eating habits.  People brought up with eating out or consuming snack foods as a special part of their lives are likely to continue eating out and bring their children up in this environment.  What was once a special treat becomes de rigueur, and there are attendant problems that result (obesity, spending habits that can lead to financial problems, etc.).  
If you bring up a generation titillated by the blatant lyrical and visual sexualization of media icons, they’re going to think less of tolerating or even promoting this sort of titillation in their children.  What is being sold to teens and young hip professionals is desirable for those who are no longer as young and hip, and who seek to demonstrate a certain level of youth and hipness vicariously through their children.  Their emphasis on sexuality and sex appeal is translated to their young children, who grow up in this sexualized environment, with attendant problems resulting (if you want to avoid sleeping tonight, consider the trend reported in this article).  
None of this is accidental, and none of this is inevitable or necessary or unalterable.  But it’s going to take people continuing to think about their lives, their choices, and what they want for their children.  If these aren’t the values we want to emphasize to our children, we have to determine what values we do want to emphasize.  It’s a huge opportunity and challenge for the Church to step into the gap in thought, to provide alternative ways of valuing life, to speak again timeless truths that assert our value is not self-defined or culturally determined.  We aren’t at the whim of age or fashion or popularity, and that we have value in every stage of our life from conception to advanced age.  An intrinsic value that cannot be removed, it can only be ignored.  I pray that there will be other leaders strong enough to speak out on these issues.  I think they’ll find a willing and ready audience.  

Virtual Violent Variations

August 11, 2010

The topic of video game violence is nothing new.  For decades opponents have decried excessive violence, whether due to it’s overly graphic nature or the cavalier nature with which violent options are provided to players.  Early popular video games with a great deal of violence channeled the violence towards opponents that were more or less deserving of their fate – whether the Nazi’s of Castle Wolfenstein , the mad scientist minions of Duke Nukem , or the demonic powers of Doom .

More recent efforts have attracted a great deal of negative attention because they create virtual environments where violence on a broad and indiscriminate basis is promoted.  Perhaps the most noted is the Grand Theft Auto series, which has a decidedly more adult-oriented play.  
Often, protests about violence in computer games are fairly flat in their critique.  Violence is bad, period, and video games are wrong to promote and glorify violence, often rewarding players with more points, character upgrades, and other goodies for engaging in deliberately violent or excessively violent actions.  Video game designers and players have often poo-pooed such objections, claiming that the violence is virtual and doesn’t affect real-world thinking or actions.  Both sides continue to promote studies that further their particular claims.  
Although I haven’t watched Moral Kombat yet, I plan to very soon, and it’s available free on Hulu .  Moral Kombat claims to be a documentary presenting an unbiased summary of the arguments of both sides of the violent video game issue.  Hopefully it’s decent.
What is often lacking in the discussion of video game violence is attention to the moral consequences of the use of violence.  In the real world, violence is sometimes a necessary means to an end.  The nature of the end, and the nature of the violence, often determine not just the morality of the act itself, but impact the perpetrators and victims of the violence in life-altering or life-shaping ways.  In fact, every time we are faced with a moral decision, our choice impacts us.  It might be massive and life changing.  It might be incremental and undetectable in and of itself, while imperceptibly contributing to the choices that we make in the future, all of which add up to a recognizable pattern.  
I enjoyed this essay on the morality of video games.  The author makes the assertion that video games present players with moral choices without often giving much weight or impact to the nature of the choices.  Whether a player decides to act morally or immorally makes no difference in storyline, points/goodies, or any other way.  The author draws on specific video games to demonstrate how morality is or is not played out through the choices given to players.  It’s a good reminder that there are a lot of thoughtful people out there who are seeking to understand and integrate morality into their lives – even in the video games they play.   
Whether you’re a video game player yourself, or have children who are making their way into the world of video game entertainment, it would seem prudent to do some careful thinking about what you play or allow them to play, and why.  Consider also that there could be good teaching opportunities in and through these games – something that many parents may not have the interest or patience to utilize, but that could be a valuable way of working with your child to develop decision-making skills and criteria, rather than arbitrarily dictating when they should or should not do.  

Existentially Non-Existent

August 9, 2010

Mankind has always had a desire to push the limits.  Some of this turned out very, very bad (a la a garden, a snake, and some forbidden fruit).  Other times, it has worked out very well in terms of the development of new capabilities, better knowledge of the world around us, and a better appreciation of what we are capable of.

As frontiers shrink, people driven to differentiate themselves from the pack and to test their own personal abilities seem to be harder and harder pressed to find ways to do this.  On another level, as people are wracked by the existential uncertainties attendant with losing any larger reason or explanation for life beyond simply living it, the need to prove oneself gets stronger.  After all, if this life is all there is, and it’s pretty much a complete accident in and of itself, the desire to provide some legacy or name for oneself grows.  
So, people compete in ways that seem not only pointless, but all too often, dangerous.   Like competing to survive in an extreme sauna.  In order to give meaning to their life?  In order to stave off the black despair of a life that is perceived to be accidental and pointless?  To kill time or fill hours?  Each person would have to answer this for themselves, but I wonder at what the answers might sound like.  And I’d love to be able to talk to these people about how their life isn’t meaningless, even if they don’t have their names in light for 15 minutes or longer.

Welcome Back

August 9, 2010

I think this has been my longest hiatus from this blogging effort for close to two years.  Motivation has been markedly absent in the past few months.

Some of this is personal.  My family has been on a five-month long road trip across America, and time and ability to be consistent in posting has been lacking.  I’ve been praying about and trying to discern a job opportunity since the beginning of April.  This has recently resulted (miraculously, in many ways) with me accepting a Call to pastor a congregation in Southern California.  There have been ancillary issues of finding a place to live, ruminating on how to begin, where to go with things, what sort of vision to pursue for the place.  Life has been unsettled in many ways.  Beautiful, wonderful, blessed.  But unsettled.
Some of the other issues are more a matter of vision and purpose with this blog.  Why am I doing this?  Who am I reaching?  How integral is this to who I am and what I want to do and be as a pastor, theologian, philosopher, etc?  If I’m not interested in doing the things necessary to promote this blog to a wider audience, should I continue it at all?  Is my aversion to self-publicizing a matter of laziness, humility, or stupidity?  
Other issues are logistical.  The hosting for this site does not provide me with the ability to do what I first envisioned – creating a place where other people can participate actively in the dialog, to build a place where people can come together and have a voice that is not in isolation but nuanced and couched and buoyed by the voices of other people who care  about similar things.  Building a virtual community has proven to be as elusive as building a physical community once turned out to be, and that’s a bit frustrating.
So, lacking any tangible answers, I’m endeavoring to get back into the saddle even as I scout another horse – or perhaps just a different saddle.  If you have thoughts you’d like to share, I’d like to hear them.  Otherwise, we’ll see where all this takes us over the next six months to a year.  Hopefully it will be worth your time, and mine, and hopefully it will benefit you as it has definitely benefited me.