Archive for September, 2010

Now and Then?

September 29, 2010

I came upon this fascinating blog entry by a Catholic blogger.  In it, he relates how a passage in the Old Testament sounds to him very much like a description of the division between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Basically, the division between the house of Israel and the house of Judah following the death of Solomon is taken as an prediction/analogy for the division of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.  I’m not sure how far this analogy is being pressed by the author (or any other author or theologian), but it struck me as interesting.
I believe that the Church should be one, as we are one in Christ.  That being said, we cannot ignore very significant theological differences – not just between Protestants and Catholics, but amongst Protestants.  Pretending that these differences are inconsequential, or that we should ignore them is intellectually and theologically dishonest.  I’d prefer that we spend more of our time focusing on the work we can do together as co-heirs of the Kingdom of God than squabbling amongst ourselves as though our squabbling was going to earn us a higher place in the Kingdom, but hey, I’m an idealist.  While unity is the goal, it ain’t likely to happen anytime soon barring some major miracles on the Holy Spirit’s part.  Maybe we should all be praying a bit harder for that.  Hmmm…
In the meantime, without going into a critique of the theological shortcomings of the use of 1 Kings 12 & 13 as a metaphor or analogy for the Protestant Reformation (no, I don’t think it’s a valid analogy/metaphor), I saw something that the blogger ignored, and that might bear every bit as much consideration as the analogy/metaphor as it’s presented .
Rehoboam’s refusal to listen to the wiser council of the elders, and instead to listen to the rash council of his friends drove the wedge between Israel and Judah (1Kings 12:1-17).  If we wish to see this story metaphorically, it is interesting that what began as a request for dialog and reform by Martin Luther was met by refusal by the Pope and religious authority of the Catholic Church.  One wonders – both in the history of Israel as well as the history of the New Testament church – how things might have been different if there had been more of an openness on the part of leaders in both situations.
Obviously I think that the analogy that is being driven towards in the linked blog is faulty.  But even a faulty analogy should be applied completely, and that means examining the aspects of it that are less than friendly towards your own position.  

Book Review – The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea by David Dark

September 28, 2010

Listening is more and more a lost art. In an age where people can plug in their ear buds and tune out anything and anyone they don’t like or don’t agree with, how does dialog occur? What are the dangers of losing touch with those who disagree, and building your life on the assumption that you have an air-tight lock on truth?

David Dark takes on this topic admirably. This is not an easy book to read because of Dark’s particular prose style, which while affable is oftentimes convoluted. Particularly, Dark wonders, shouldn’t Biblical Christians find themselves called to a different form of behavior than the pop culture of talking-heads? Aren’t Biblical Christians called to testify to a truth that we only know in part – a truth that we see at best only “dimly”? And if our grasp on truth is so dim, shouldn’t we be too careful about demonizing those that are earnestly attempting to describe truth yet coming to different conclusions? How would Jesus talk?

Dark utilizes politicians, authors, songwriters, and popular culture figures who call us towards a deeper honesty that rejects the sound-bite sized truth as inadequate and every bit as dangerous as a lie in many cases. Truth is a slippery thing we can never get an adequate grip on, and this should drive us towards the humility and love that are to be hallmarks of Biblical Christians.

Dark’s writing is one challenge in reading this. Another is the particular cultural elements that he chooses to draw into the discussion. If you aren’t much of a reader or into blues singers, you may find that a lot of his analysis eludes you. This may mean you end up skimming or skipping most of the second half of the book. Don’t feel bad. That’s exactly what I did a few years ago on my first read through this book. While I forced myself not to skip over it this time, I can’t say that the second half of the text was particularly enlightening or helpful beyond the most general of themes. Some of it I got because I was familiar with the stories or authors or singers he chose to illustrate his points. Much of it went by me because I haven’t read or followed what and who he talked about.

The other problem I have with this book is that the core theme could be stated pretty well in just a few pages. Dark’s introductory comments go on for more than a few pages and adequately address the topic. The rest of the book is explication, and not necessarily a lot of value-add (at least for me) given how hard it is to wade through his prose. His suggestion that our large-scale national dialogs ought to be conducted more like a meeting of friends at the Waffle House who sit and talk and may not agree but disagree with politeness and love (and with great passion) because they know they’ll be talking to those people again the very next week is well taken and highly important. I wish he had incorporated this metaphor more consistently.

If Truth is out there, it’s going to take the best in all of us to make the most sense out of it, and even then we’re still going to fall far short. In the meantime, how we treat one another is every bit as important (or more so) than the particular solutions we seek to implement. Polarizing thought and commentary ultimately is counterproductive because it effectively keeps us from hearing the Truth as it might possibly be found or expressed even by those we don’t like or disagree with profoundly in some areas. A little humility more clearly lives out the American ideas of “all men created equal” than insisting that only those who think like me are equal. 

What do You Know?

September 28, 2010

Time to hit the books.  Again.

A new survey shows that atheists know more about religion than religious people seem to.  If you’re keen to take the quiz yourself to see how you do, click here.  Feel free to share your score if you like – but it’s not required.  Apparently the odds are good that it isn’t going to be as impressive as we’d like it to be!

View at Your Own Per(ry)il

September 27, 2010

I wasn’t going to bother commenting on the Sesame Street/Katy Perry controversy, but I found a few interesting things to comment on beyond the actual event itself.

Pop singer Katy Perry filmed a spot for Sesame Street (that never aired on the show, only on YouTube) that was later removed due to parental complaints.  
Be warned that this link is to a pop-culture site that some people might consider inappropriate for a workplace environment.  I link to it because it has a response from Sesame Street that I think is rather interesting.
In a nut shell, Katy Perry bops around in a clip with Elmo to a slightly revised version of a popular song of hers from a few months back.  She’s dressed in a rather skimpy top.  Given that much pop fascination with Perry stems from her endowments, this isn’t surprising.  Sesame Street’s apparent explanation is a little surprising.
“Sesame Street has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult. We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or care-giver. We also value our viewer’s opinions and particularly those of parents. In light of the feedback we’ve received on the Katy Perry music video which was released on You Tube only, we have decided we will not air the segment on the television broadcast of Sesame Street, which is aimed at preschoolers.”

I trust that this is a legitimate quote, though I haven’t been able to confirm the legitimacy.  However this quote seems to back up the general tone of the above quote.  
In any event, what I find interesting is that Sesame Street is defending it’s actions as an appeal to adults.  I have no problem with the overall goal.  Sesame Street has incorporated celebrity visits for years, and they’re usually interesting or at least a break to the basic format of the show.  I think that it’s a great tactic for keeping parents engaged.  My problem isn’t with the idea.
My problem is with the apparent assumption that the only reason Perry would be interesting even to the parents is if she wears an outfit that is revealing.  I can understand at a certain level – I personally find her voice extremely grating and wonder if she would have enjoyed the success she has if she looked differently or was unwilling to exploit her physical appearance.  Would I have enjoyed James Taylor’s guest spot more if he had been wearing a revealing outfit?  Deciding to outfit Perry (or allow her to outfit herself) in an outfit that is definitely out of keeping with the show’s normal costuming standards seems to say a couple of things.
It says that parents are mainly interested in her for her sex appeal.  Again, if you’ve heard her sing, this may be true.  But I would be a tad offended as a parent.  It also says that Perry really is mostly appealing for her body.  Perhaps Perry is just fine with this assessment, but I would think she’d be a little offended.  
I think some of the comments on the first article are also telling.  The person who writes that the outfit is no less revealing than the fashions of older children or cheerleaders or music videos is interesting.  She’s right, of course.  And given our culture’s predilection with sexualizing children at younger and younger ages, this isn’t so much surprising as it is disturbing.  My five year-old daughter shouldn’t be influenced in her fashion choices or her self-image by the fashions (and issues) that a 15-year old deals with.
Yes, there are more revealing fashions out there, and in many circles Ms. Perry’s outfit would be considered conservative.  However I don’t allow my daughter (or sons) to watch those shows or travel in those circles.  Once again, people don’t seem willing to consider context, and instead focus solely on the amount of skin revealed.  Do the ends justify the means?  At a beach, you expect to see skin.  On Sesame Street, you don’t.  But should we – if that’s all that will convince some parents to spend a few minutes with their child in front of the television?  I don’t think so.  But apparently some people do.

Is It Really Over?

September 27, 2010

The recession, I mean.

Some folks claim it is.  
Others are not so sure.
Regardless of what anyone claims to be over, there are a ton of people hurting financially.  Lots of people are still out of work.  Can an economy recover without the people recovering?  And if that is possible, would you really even care?   

Well Read

September 26, 2010

An interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal on the disparity in reading abilities between boys and girls, and the pitfalls of how to lure boys to read more.

Our oldest son loves to read.  It’s possible this is just a fluke of breeding – both his mother and I love to read as well.  But I think there are some things that can be done to encourage boys to read that this essay doesn’t bother to consider.
Be Readers.  Children often emulate their parents.  If they see that reading is important to you (meaning they actually see you reading, rather than you just telling them how important reading is), they may be prompted to investigate it for themselves. 
Read Good Stuff.  What you read will be observed along with the fact that you’re reading at all.  I believe in a fairly broad variety of reading material, ranging from old Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes anthologies to classical literature, history, philosophy, theology, etc.  You can help guide your kids towards worthwhile books if you’ve read them yourself.
Have Good Reading Material On Hand.  If you collect books, this is probably not a problem for you.  But even if you don’t have the space or the money to amass a personal library, you can make weekly trips to the library and ensure that you have lots of books on hand, lying around, waiting to be picked up, thumbed through, and read when a child is bored and unoccupied.
Read to Your Child.  I think this is a huge one.  Perhaps the biggest one.  And it encompasses all three of the above suggestions in one tidy little suggestion.  I finished reading The Hobbit to my kids just a couple of months ago.  We’re almost through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , now.  Read with inflection.  Read with emotion.  Give each character a unique voice that you use for the entire book.  Make it fun.  If your child has fun with you reading to them, it’s got to encourage them to read on their own.
We also limit our children’s access to video games (we have a Wii system).  Yes, boys are naturally more attracted to the visual appeal of video games, and parents need to be directly involved in what their children play as well as how much they play it.  At least thus far, our kids spend far more time reading than they do playing video games.  Hopefully that will continue the rest of their lives!

Isn’t That Sweet?

September 25, 2010

Another opportunity to listen to NPR this morning on my way in to the office (yes, pastors work more than just a half day on Sunday.  We also often work a half day on Saturdays.  No no, no need to thank us.  We’re glad to sacrifice those two days of the week in the service of the Lord and to have the other five days off).

There was a short news story related to the recent 114th birthday of Walter Bruening , also known as the world’s oldest man.  The ‘writer’ of the NPR audio story congratulated him, and noted how he gave a little speech at his birthday party where he suggested that people ought to be nice to one another.  It’s hard to describe the tone and inflection of voice that the speaker of the story used to describe this.  But I could picture a woman with her head tilted, one hand on the downward cheek, shaking her head softly back and forth and cooing Isn’t that just darling?  
A similar tone of voice was used later to describe the victories of her young children in things such as learning to ride a bike without training wheels.  She talked about how these are really victories and lessons that stick with us all our lives, but her voice conveyed a level of jaded experience.  As a woman of the world, she seems to convey that these victories – as well as admonitions from a man over three times her age – are nice.  Wonderful.  Glowing sort of Hallmark moments.  But her voice also left it pretty clear that these are isolated, rather insulated successes and advice.  Beyond the protected world of early childhood or advanced age, there is the Real World, and in the Real World, stuff has to get done and it doesn’t always (or even often) have much to do with being nice or taking pleasure in the simple things of life.  
I’m celebrating similar victories with my children these days.  Our oldest son learning his first notes on a ukulele.  Our daughter excelling in her tumbling class. Our youngest reciting from memory a poem.  And yes, I’m considerably older than my kids, have lived a bit, seen a bit, done a bit, learned a bit.  But there’s no mistaking the true milestones that these events represent.  I don’t – and I pray I continue with this grace – indulge these victories as sweet or cute or somehow marginalize them against a lifetime of other accomplishments and accolades.  
I see my children’s accomplishments on a par with my ordination, or graduating from high school, or paying off my first car, or any number of assorted milestones I’ve reached in actuality or in my mind.  The milestones are different, but no less glorious.  No less a pure celebration of the goodness of God in providing us with another day to live and learn and experience.  To succeed, to fail, to receive freely forgiveness and grace beyond our wildest dreams or our best efforts to earn.  Mr. Breuning is right – we should be nicer to each other, and that doesn’t matter if we’re four years old, 40, or 114.  Perhaps if we took niceness a bit more seriously (and more carefully defined, to be sure!), we would remember how crucial it is, how beautiful and lovely, and perhaps it would become less of a surprise when we run across it.  
My children are cute.  Mr. Breuning is undoubtedly cute at 114.  But let us not let appearances keep us from remembering the things that matter, the very real victories that constitute not what it means to be successful, but what it means to be alive!   Regardless of how long we live, we all have a lot to learn, and a long way to go.  

Privacy Matters?

September 23, 2010

A colleague posted this short but thought-provoking blog entry today.

Do I care about privacy?  I think the answer is both yes and no.  
I do care, but the fact is that technology has advanced so impressively just in my lifetime that data that once would have been essentially unusable without a great deal of time and effort on the part of either the credit card company or a third party company is now accessible almost instantly.  People aren’t aware of the fact that digital calls can be recorded and stored indefinitely, as can purchases made with debit and credit cards.  I don’t think most people are aware of the level of interest there is in our behavior from a marketing standpoint.  At this point, I’m wedded to my credit and debit cards, and the inconvenience necessary to do without them by and large (not sure if it’s possible to completely do without them any more if you want to maintain a credit history – another privacy matter itself!) is not worth the incremental privacy I would gain.  
Secondly, I don’t care.  I have few illusions about privacy.  Since my purchases are by and large nothing I’d be too concerned about anyone else knowing about, it doesn’t matter to me if they do.  I know that most of my life is on record in one form or another, and I try to comport myself with that understanding.  It irks me that I’m trackable through the circuitry of my cell phone (or possibly my car, though it’s an older model), but it’s generally not a worry to me.  I dislike targeted advertising, but I’m also pretty adept at ignoring it.  So yes, barring the element of surprise, privacy is less of a concern.  
Do you care about privacy?  How much?  How little?  

Trust Your Vocation

September 22, 2010

This time of year begins the ritual of school starting up again (yes, I’m late on this, but it’s close enough).  Having been in and around academia all my life, I’m pretty attuned to this ebb and flow of the year.  Having children in school also reinforces this (even if they’re schooled at home).

Undergraduate degrees are now considered in many fields to be a baseline consideration for being hired.  But this isn’t really a necessity all too often.  I thought this was a great article that really examines the dynamics of college education and asks whether or not it’s really as good a system as everyone assumes it to be.  Does everyone really need to get their undergraduate degree (or advanced degrees)?  
There’s definitely a stigma now associated with not completing college-level study.  But that isn’t based on anything other than an artificially created expectation.  While I’m a huge proponent of education, to assume that such an education must come from a collegiate degree is bizarre, denying the myriad of factors that make education in some ways a unique experience.  While there should be a system to ensure that people who are paying for a higher education get their money’s worth, to assume that a university is the only valid place to acquire necessary knowledge, skills, or culture is dangerous.  Abraham Lincoln – a self-taught lawyer and president – would have fared pretty poorly under our current system that would exclude anyone who hasn’t jumped through very specific, prescribed hoops.  
Is there more to the push for higher education?  I think there is.  Ideologically, having everyone go through an additional four years of school at a typical public (or private, in a majority of cases) university exposes students to very specific ideological opinions.  They are more likely to take the things they are told and taught at university as ‘truth’ (that’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?).  At a very basic level it can be additional programming, additional time to make sure that people think a certain way on certain issues (evolution, tolerance, sexuality & gender issues, revisionist history, etc.).  And at least to the extent that this is often part of the goal of a typical university, we need to really consider whether or not this is a healthy environment for our kids.  The church often wonders at the stunning levels at which kids who were raised in the church leave it all behind in college.  Is this just coincidence?  I seriously doubt it.  Is this the sort of expectation we want to set for ourselves, our families, and our society?
How do we make sense of expectations such as this as Christians?  Is there a way of thinking about our lives and what we do to contribute to society and support ourselves that would help us feel good about decisions we make, regardless of what expectations the world claims?  Is there anything that would help us think outside this box of undergraduate education as a mandatory experience for even entry-level positions and work?
There is.  It’s called the doctrine of vocation .  It’s the ennobling assertion that we are created by God, and that herein lies our intrinsic value, and that this value is then expressed in love and service to those around us.  We are gifted and called in a variety of ways to support ourselves, our families, and to contribute towards the well-being of our neighbors in the larger community around us.  For some people, that will require some very specific and specialized education and training.  For others, this isn’t necessary.  The importance isn’t whether or not we attained the arbitrary marker of a diploma or not, but whether or not we’re living up to our created potential and utilizing it in productive and meaningful ways.  Does everyone need to go $25K or more in debt to do this?  Hardly!  
We need to work within the frameworks of our culture and society, but we shouldn’t assume that what is pushed towards us is unchangeable or ultimate wisdom.  Those who need a college education should by all means get one.  But we shouldn’t stigmatize those who don’t need it, don’t want it, and are every bit (or more!) contributing members of society without it.  We ought to expand our concepts of education in light of the idea of vocation.  

A Common Sense Solution

September 22, 2010

Growing up in Arizona, I’m used to seeing citrus trees.  I always wondered why so many of the trees had fruit on them that nobody ever picked.  I was stunned when I learned that there are actually purely ornamental fruit trees – they’re bred specifically so that the fruit is inedible.  What in the world sort of sense does that make?!

Entering our third year in Southern California fruit trees are everywhere.  Citrus trees in abundance, plus avocados.  I have visited several places where there are fruit trees that go unharvested.  Particularly as folks get older and less active, the produce trees in their yards go unharvested.  Yet I’m sure there are plenty of people that would be happy to have that produce on their tables instead of rotting on the ground.
I think our family is going to try volunteering with this group.  Backyard Bounty is a sub-program of the Santa Barbara Foodbank.  They are volunteers that will go out and harvest unwanted, unneeded, or excess produce off of fruit trees and then donate it to the foodbank so that people who are hungry can benefit from it.  I suspect that there are probably people in my congregation would benefit by having someone come out and get rid of that excess fruit from them.  When I talked with the Backyard Bounty folks, they volunteered to provide us with crates to put the produce in, and even to drive out and pick up the harvested fruit when we were done collecting it.  What a great, simple idea.