Archive for April, 2011

I, I, Captain

April 27, 2011

This article may not come as a shock to many of you.  According to some studies, we are becoming a more narcissistic culture.  

What surprised me in this article was the utter lack of any real discussion of why this could be the case.  I’m no genius, but even I have noticed a massive cultural shift in how children are raised.  Watching television with my kids (we’re on vacation, and therefore have access to television that we normally don’t) is fascinating, and a tad disgusting.  The emphasis in nearly every show on the ability, smartness, cleverness, and all-around awesomeness of the kids watching the show can be nauseating at times.  
Every show attempts to elicit interaction from the viewers, giving them a few seconds to answer questions before the show answers them.  Invariably, the show congratulates the viewers on how smart they are for figuring it out.  I’m not suggesting that the shows should assume that the viewers are stupid or dullards, it seems the emphasis on building self-confidence is more than strong enough.
Remember stories about schools that ban certain competitive sports because pop psychologists insist that losing damages self-esteem?  Ever marveled how many scholars, great kids, and otherwise award-worthy kids there are in any given elementary school?  Judging based on bumper stickers alone, we seem to be raising a bumper crop of genius citizens.
Or narcissists.
Funny, I was raised in an era of competitive sports.  I wasn’t very good at practically all of them.  I don’t think it permanently scarred me (though I admit I’m not an avid sports player as an adult).  These experiences helped guide me in focusing my energies and efforts in areas that I seemed to be better in.  I’m not surprised that so many 20-somethings feel so bewildered at times about life and what they should be doing in it.  When you’ve been raised with the idea that you’re awesome at everything, it must be overwhelming.  
And I suspect that for all the positive reinforcement and narcissistic songs, people really deep-down recognize that they aren’t nearly as accomplished and beautiful and sexy and intelligent as culture wants to insist they are.  I’d be depressed too if I felt as though I’d been lied to all my life about my abilities, resulting in my own inability to determine what my real strengths are, and leaving me no alternative but a lot of distrust of all of my abilities and a lot of work to sift out the gratuitous awards in search of what I do seem to have genuine proclivity towards.  I imagine that would lead to a fair bit of paralysis and delayed launchings into the traditional hallmarks of adulthood – stable work and stable relationships.
I want my kids to know how special and wonderful they are.  And I ground that basis not by lying to them about everything they do so they think they’re Einstein’s brain in an Olympic athlete’s body.  Rather, I ground their value and specialness in the fact that they have been created by a loving God who has sacrificed of Himself to ensure that they can be with Him forever.  Each of my kids has gifts and inclinations and abilities and we encourage those.  But we don’t feel compelled to pretend that our kids are good at everything – or have to be good at everything.  I can’t imagine the pressure that would place on a kid!
So pop artists aren’t doing much different than what culture is teaching our kids to do through a constant barrage of meaningless compliments.  Whether pop artists are writing these songs to reassure themselves or their listeners is probably a moot question, ultimately.  I would imagine they all need as much reassurance as they can get.
I strongly recommend watching PBS Kids in the morning to get this self-esteem fix.  Just be careful not to OD.

Not My Type

April 27, 2011

Hard to believe, but the typewriter is dead.  Well, sort of dead.  Maybe not as dead as it seemed to be a few days ago.  But still.  Not doing well at all.  

I’m quick to share that, despite some very good teachers in some really fascinating classes in high school, hands down the most useful course I ever took was a semester of typing.  I learned on a manual and moved up to an electric.  It’s a skill I’ve used every single day of my life – pretty much literal truth, that – for at least the past decade.  It’s been a part of my weekly life probably since high school.  It saw me through high school journalism work, college papers, and into a variety of writing projects that continue to this day.  While I wouldn’t be caught dead using a typewriter these days, I mourn their passing.  Or at least their near, almost sort-of passing.
I average 100+ wpm, and will stick with full-sized computer keyboards for as long as they keep making those.  

Breathe Easier. Or Panic.

April 25, 2011

But at least you’ll be better informed about which option you should choose.

If you have the Google Earth plug-in or application, then this is an interesting thing to view.  It’s Google Earth overlayed with the locations of nuclear reactors, and the estimated area around them that could be at risk from a nuclear catastrophe in a par with what is happening in Japan (or Chernobyl).  
It’s a relief to know that while an earthquake might set us adrift as a new island or just sink us into the ocean completely, we aren’t in immediate risk from a nuclear reactor leak.

Baby You Can Drive My Car…

April 23, 2011

Unless you drop out of school, that is.  In which case, you may not be driving at all.

This short editorial was a surprise to me.  It indicates that already nearly half the states in our nation restrict driving privileges to those who remain enrolled in school.  I find that rather interesting on a variety of levels.  If you’re morbid, the full-text of the bill is here, and the related section is the very last one (of course).  
I mean, it sounds reasonable enough, right?  Every teenager wants to drive, but not every teenager wants to stay in school and graduate.  So how about linking something that they have a high motivation towards, with something they might have a low motivation towards?  Everyone wins, right?  Kids stay in school (not necessarily graduating, mind you, just filling seats until they turn 18), and they get to drive.  Sounds like a piece of cake.
If it actually works.  The editorial cites this other, short editorial that attempts to convince us (without any hard evidence) that linking driving with school enrollment is not necessarily effective.  I wasn’t able to easily Google a list of which 20 states currently link driving to enrollment, or statistics on how useful these laws are for reinforcing school attendance and/or graduation.  
Each state has to determine how long children are required to be in some form of educational process, whether public, private, or home schooled.  I would guess that at age 18, every state acknowledges that a person is legally an adult and therefore is not required to continue schooling.  Many states may allow for youth to quit attending school at a younger age with parental approval.  
The underlying assumption is that high school graduation ought to be a necessity for every person.  This is a relatively recent assumption, as we’re only a century or so removed from a time when getting an eighth-grade education was considered adequate.  Of course, there are those who argue that an eighth-grade education a century ago might be more rigorous than current eighth-grade expectations.  Regardless, more education is always assumed to be a better thing these days.  But that depends a great deal on what someone hopes to do vocationally.
I’ll state again that I am a huge proponent of education, and I believe that a good education is an investment that will last a lifetime.  
That being said, measures like this seem rather shortsighted.  Rather than focusing on the quality of education provided, they seem to assume that any education (or just the process of sitting in a school desk for seven hours a day) is better than other options – such as working.  It would seem to me that if someone is only going to school in order to maintain their ability to drive, their motivation levels may not be very strong.  If their intent is not to graduate, but rather to just fulfill the letter of the law, it would seem that they would create a greater negative influence in the school.  Apathy is contagious.  
Being a suspicious sort, I also assume that there are other goals in mind.   Special interest groups seem to be more and more adept at forcing their agendas into public school classrooms, however those successes in directly controlling how people think (and what they think) are only as useful as their reach.  If you’re missing people in the process, it’s a fly in the ointment.    I think that measures such as this, as well as increasing suspicion against home-schooling are spurred in part by the recognition that public elementary and secondary educational systems are crucial environments for shaping what people think and believe.  
Yet another reason to be very aware of what is being taught as truth or required in terms of compliance in your children’s school!

Heaven is for Real

April 21, 2011

I haven’t read Heaven is for Real yet, but I have a copy of it at home and it’s next up in my reading queue.  This article describes some of the controversy the book has raised, though it doesn’t spend much time on it (do we honestly expect any more out of USA Today?).  

A 4-year old boy nearly dies from a burst appendix, miraculously survives and claims to have been in heaven for about three minutes.  Read the article for other salient facts.  
The few objections the article mentions are typical.  Of course if you are predisposed to thinking that the nature of reality has been fully mapped, explained, and predicted, the very idea of heaven is going to sound preposterous.  However calling people stupid is hardly a credible argument against something like God or heaven, even if it has become both popular and perhaps even effective in cowing Christians into silence.
Have any of you read this book yet, or do you plan to?  I’ll share my thoughts when I finish it – hopefully you’ll do the  same!

I Swear…

April 20, 2011

It’s been fascinating, the little war on spam comments that has erupted behind the scenes on this lil’ ol’ blog.  And while I admit that it’s sort of cool to see the number of visits to this site climbing into the hundreds and several hundreds, it’s sort of depressing to know that it’s not legitimate hits from actual people, but the result of some crazy group of folks who figure that this is a good place to leave spam messages.  I don’t get it, personally.   And it’s irritating enough to make me want to swear.

Which, by the way, apparently is a good way to reduce pain.  This article from Time summarizes a study where swearing is shown to be effective at reducing pain (or prolonging the time period that someone can endure a specific type of pain).  Thanks to Clickette for sending this article to my attention.  Many pastors would be dismayed to hear of a study that seems to promote swearing for quasi-medicinal purposes.
I’m not real worried about it, though.
I had a discussion a few years ago in a Church Council meeting where one of the officers was angry that a high-profile member had released a YouTube clip that featured a copious amount of profanity.  Granted, this is not the sort of thing that I prefer to have high-profile members doing.  But she was pushing on Biblical grounds that this person needed to be chastised in some way, and her argument centered around the Ten Commandments and the idea of swearing.  And that was where I took exception to her argument.
The issue of the second commandment (depending on how you number them) is not about swearing.  It is about taking the Lord’s name in vain.  While this is sometimes part of swearing, it isn’t necessarily so.  I draw a distinction between taking the Lord’s name in vain and profanity or vulgarity.  While I believe that profanity and vulgarity are to be avoided as Christians, it isn’t an issue of breaking the Ten Commandments, per se.  
I dislike profanity and its pervasiveness in our culture.  I particularly dislike the casualness with which it is now uttered and shouted.  People in crowded places like airports seem to think nothing of swearing up a blue streak on their cell phone, regardless of who is around them.  There seems to be the assumption that this is just the way people talk.  Not that long ago, such language was saved for momentous occasions or at least environments where women and children weren’t loitering about.  Which leads me to suspect that before long, the words long considered vulgar and profane in our culture will lose that stigma all together.  New words will be found, no doubt.  For people of a certain age, the old words will retain their offensiveness, but for younger folks, they will become meaningless, almost.  They will lose their punch, and so new ones will come along.
Otherwise, how are we going to endure pain better?
Seriously, though.  Is it appropriate for a Christian to swear?  Probably not.  Depending on the motivation and purpose of the swearing, someone is far more likely to be violating the spirit of other commandments – assuming they’re leaving God’s name out of it. The Commandments against murder, for example, or bearing false witness against your neighbor come to mind first.  Since Jesus in Matthew 5 demonstrates that the commandments include intent and the heart, not just the hands, swearing is probably an example of ways that people are breaking those commandments.  
But it’s not the specific words that are the problem, but rather the state of the mind and heart that allow (or demand) they be uttered.  Complicated?  You betcha.  So try to control your tongue – it’s a good idea.  But remember that what you say (or don’t say) isn’t the measure of whether or not you’re breaking a commandment!

Book Review: The Problem of Pain

April 19, 2011

The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis.

This is a great book.  Lewis tackles the issue of pain from a very modernist perspective.  He doesn’t bother spending a lot of time on how we feel about pain or whether it’s nice or not.  He assumes that the world is a rational and objective place, that there are actual objective truths that aren’t at the whim of our personal desires or a multiplicity of personal preferences.  He starts with the way that God appears to have designed the world and logically deals with the reality of pain  in a real world that is seriously broken.
While he goes off on some tangents that I don’t personally find very compelling or even necessary (the near-last chapter on animal pain, to be specific), overall the book is right on target.  Much of the theology here is hinted at or treated in passing in his other works, so you may find some of this to be pleasantly familiar.  
If you wish to have some intelligent answers when people ask you how you could love and trust in a God that allows suffering and pain in our world, this is a book worth rereadingr again from time to time.

Gervais Strikes (out) Again

April 18, 2011

Ricky Gervais’ cheeky diatribes against Christianity must really boost circulation for the Wall Street Journal, since they’re opting to give him air time again as we come up on the biggest Christian celebration of the year, Easter.  Nothing like a bit of controversy before Christmas and Easter to up the subscription or per-copy sales rates, I guess.

I’ve blogged on his Christmas postings here and here.  So it seems only fitting to blog on this, his Easter essay.  
First we need to draw a distinction – one that Gervais only half delineates.  Christianity is not first and foremost a moral or ethical system.  It is not at it’s heart a means of telling us what to do.  Rather, it is at it’s heart a means of telling us who we are, and what our proper relationship is to one another, creation, and our Creator.  This is a distinction that is lost on many Christians, unfortunately.  When you ask many Christians what Christianity is, they default to the Ten Commandments and a listing of things that we should and shouldn’t do, with Jesus tossed in to the mix.  Christianity does provide a moral and ethical system, but this is largely a secondary issue.  It is secondary in part because Biblical Christianity also insists that we are unable to keep this system and are frankly in full rebellion against it.  
So the idea that Jesus could ever have been the influential teacher and preacher he was if he didn’t also back up his teachings with some pretty powerful actions is rather simplistic, to say the least.  And it asserting otherwise makes Gervais guilty of the thing he likes to attack Christians for – cherry-picking the Bible, pulling out the teachings from Jesus that he likes and ignoring the rest of the stuff.  Stuff like Jesus raising people from the dead, rising from the dead himself, proclaiming himself the Son of God and equally divine to God the Father, and stuff like that.  I side with C.S. Lewis – if you want to be honest about Jesus, you have to look at all of what he said (and did), and not just the parts you like or find reasonable.  Doing this ought to give every Christian and non-Christian in the world plenty of reason for pause and self-examination and repentance!
So Gervais is right – keeping the Ten Commandments is not the same as being a Christian, and hopefully at the very least this article will prompt that sort of thinking among Christians.  Then, we have to examine how he chooses to define and apply the Ten Commandments to himself to find out if he’s even very good at the moral/ethical aspects of Biblical Christianity.
Also, before we begin, let’s be clear.  I’m scoring Gervais here because he has the audacity to score himself.  I don’t believe that most any person – Christian or otherwise – is going to score well enough for bragging rights on this list.  We all struggle and fail with some or all of these commands.  It’s a matter of how honest we intend to be about it.  
One – I would disagree with Gervais here.  If we go with Luther’s assertion that a god is what we place our faith and hope in, then Gervais indeed does have another god.  Gervais makes it clear that he puts his faith and hope in humanity itself.  We are ourselves, in other words, the only suitable source of hope and faith,  and the final interpreters of reality.  Minus one point for Gervais.
Two – Gervais apparently relies on a typically short-sighted idea of the nature of an idol.  I have mentioned several times in the past month or so that as I think about it more and more, the debit card in my wallet in my back pocket is as potent an idol as ever was.   I tend to think that if Gervais is willing to think a bit more thoroughly about this topic, he’d find that he’s as guilty as most everyone else on the issue of idolatry of one form or another.  Minus one point for Gervais.  
Three – First off, Gervais has some interesting reinterpretations on this commandment.  His interpretations seem to blur the line between this commandment and the ninth commandment.  And while I’m willing to grant that perhaps Gervais never uses God’s name as an epithet or short-cut emphasis, I’m also going to go out on a limb and say that when you use God’s name to argue against the existence of God, you’re probably violating this commandment.  Minus one point for Gervais.
Four – While he’s right on a great deal of this, his conclusion is still overly simplified.  Verse 9 that he quotes indicates that the Sabbath is not our day, but God’s.  It is God that makes the Sabbath day holy as a day of rest, and our failure to acknowledge this, even if we’re enjoying a day of leisure, would be a violation of this command.  Minus one point.
Five– He’s honest, and I’m willing to grant him that.  However, I’m sure that he – like most people – have had moments where he’s been less than honoring of his parents, even if only in his thoughts and only briefly.  That’s the nature of commandments, Ricky.  Breaking one of them once is the same (by Biblical Christianity’s standards) as breaking all of them regularly.  It’s only between us humans that the distinctions of frequency or severity hold any meeting.  God has only two categories for us – total and complete and absolute obedience, or disobedience.  I’m glad you love your parents, and I pray they love you two.  But still minus one point.
Six – Check with Matthew 5:21-23.  Murder is not only a matter of the hands, it is a matter of the heart.  Jesus makes it very clear (is this one of those teachings of Jesus that you respect or believe, or one you’d prefer to skip over, Ricky?) that breaking of the commandments begins in our hearts and minds as far as God is concerned.  Ever been angry with someone and thought them a fool or a moron or a stupid Christian?  Minus one point.  
Seven – See Matthew 5:27-30.  Ever marveled or fantasized about another person?  Strike.  And also remember that in the Biblical context that we translate as ‘adultery’, there were no permitted sexual relationships outside of marriage.  The classical translation of ‘fornication’ was closer to the mark here.  Having sex with anyone you aren’t married to violates this commandment.   Minus one point.
Eight – It’s possible that Gervais has never stolen anything, but more likely – as with pretty much everyone else- it means that he’s limiting the definition of stealing to something more culturally or societally defined.  I used to steal sugar or peanut butter or other items from the cupboards as a child.  I’m sure there were times when I swiped toys from other kids or my sister.  We don’t culturally consider these as theft, but at their base, the motivations are the same – I’m taking something that is not mine to take.  I’m glad Gervais is not a thief by our cultural standards, but I’m still going to assume his memory is just selective at a certain level, and dock him a point.
Nine – I’m going to assume the same thing here.  Ever said something that wasn’t true about someone else?  Ever sat idly by while someone else said something untrue about someone else?  This command is not only broken in a court room or some other official forum. &
nbsp;Minus one point.
Ten – Again, I’m fairly positive that a comprehensive review of Gervais’ life would reveal times where he has coveted these things.  I’m glad that he’s not obsessive about it – some people are consumed by covetousness.  But the commandment doesn’t stipulate an acceptable level of covetousness.  And as such – as with all the commands – even once is a strike against you.  Minus one point.
So, on the whole, I’d argue that a more faithful and honest effort at examining one’s conscience in light of the Ten Commandments is likely to show that they *are* very consistent, that the only interpretation that goes on is when we try to weasel out from under the indictments of each commandment, and affirming that God is most definitely intolerant of evil and rebellion.  We like to make distinctions in severity and frequency, but these are for making us feel better by and large.  While we’re free (and even have to) cut each other slack on these points, there is no such slack with God.  Either you keep every command perfectly, or you fail in all of them.  
This is the big deal about Jesus.  Not his good teaching, but his perfect obedience on our behalf.  I pray that Gervais come to realize that Jesus is quite a bit more than a decent teacher with delusions of grandeur, and that Gervais – along with so many other people – come to see the huge significance of Easter, and the immense love of God behind it.

People Watch

April 18, 2011

As with many of you, I enjoyed a wonderful Palm Sunday celebration this morning with my congregation.  Another reminder of the privilege that we enjoy in being free to practice our religion (as opposed to being free to worship, as some are more inclined to try and redefine it these days).  In our Bible Study time this morning, we talked about the call to be humble, to be willing to be a servant even when that means that we ourselves suffer dishonor or contempt.  The Scripture readings for this morning (Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11) emphasized the humility of Christ, an unusual focus on a day when it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem.

In our Bible Study time we talked about how we as Christians need to be humble, something that’s hard to remember when Christianity has been top dog in Western civilization for close to 1500 years.  We have to remember this though, because people are watching, and they watch to see how we conduct ourselves.
So this article about a crackdown on Christian house churches in China seems rather fitting at the end of this day.  While Christianity is tolerated primarily through State controlled churches, there has been greater freedom for less official house churches in recent years.  But that appears to have changed recently.  Why?  The wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East against repressive regimes.  True, these uprisings have undoubtedly been led by and based in mostly Muslim populations, but the article notes that mosques were a primary ground for feeding the discontent.  Chinese officials have perhaps decided that they need to clamp down on churches in their own country, less they prove to be identical focal points of dissension.
We are so blessed.  Pray for those who at this most exciting time of the church year are unable to worship their risen savior freely.

One for the Books

April 15, 2011

The California state senate has approved a measure that would require public schools in California to include special units on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) contributions to history and culture.  Here is a short news clip on the topic.

Note how Mr. Selberg of the Pacific Pride Foundation talks about the purpose of the bill – as a means of discouraging what?  Bullying.  Yup.  As I predicted almost six months ago, bullying continues to be the smoke screen and rallying cry for pushing through LGBT-friendly agendas and materials in all sorts of areas.  
It’s odd, but I don’t ever remember talking about the sexual orientations of certain figures in history.  I mean, for some, it was obvious.  If Henry VIII was a closet homosexual, he did a good job of covering up for it with multiple wives and splitting off from the Catholic Church and stuff like that.  But on the whole, the sexual orientation of historical and cultural figures wasn’t an issue.  It hasn’t been an issue requiring specific education for probably all of human history.  Until now.  Now, we need to specifically highlight the contributions of this tiny percentage of the population, so that they don’t feel “isolated”?
If we’re going to note sexual preferences in social studies, I should think it would make LGBT students feel even more isolated when they are shown what a tiny percentage of historical figures were probably LGBT.  But then again, this isn’t really about LGBT students.  Rather, it’s a way of indoctrinating students as a whole into accepting LGBT issues as an equal part of everything.   Hopefully voters will be as strong in voicing their opinions about the lawmakers who approved this come election time as they were in voting on Proposition 8 a few years ago.