Civility as putdown

Civility is important — even necessary — in a society that seeks to be known as civilized. But, there are times when civility can go the wrong way. Walker Percy provides an excellent example in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome, where the protagonist (psychiatrist Tom More) encounters an old janitor with whom he’d had familiar rapport for years (emphasis mine):

“How you doing, Frank?”

“Good morning, Doctor.”

“Still featherbedding—” I begin in our old chaffing style, but he cuts me off with, of all things, “Have a nice day, Doctor”— and back to his polishing without missing the swing of the machine. I could have been any doctor, anybody.

Here again, a small thing. Nothing startling. He might simply have decided to dispose of me with standard U.S. politeness, which is indeed the easiest way to get rid of people. Have a nice day—

Or he might have decided that the ultimate putdown is this same American civility. What better dismissal than to treat someone you’ve known for forty years like a drive-up customer at Big Mac’s? [p.17]

Mere civility where more is wanting can be as injurious as an insult.

All the same, have a nice day.

Family Driven Faith

Family Driven Faith

It’s ironic that within the evangelical church — a people who by and large claim their ultimate authority to be Scripture alone — it is tradition that is often the most difficult thing to change.

Voddie T. Baucham Jr.’s book, Family Driven Faith: Doing What It Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God (Crossway Books, 2007) challenges many of our extra-biblical traditions with a tough but winsome approach. Instead of cultivating the latest ecclesiastical trends, Baucham takes a refreshing look at the age-old biblical institution of the family, and places it at ground zero for the work of Christ in the church.

The book covers topics ranging from the irresponsibility of men who abandon spiritual leadership to the growing biblical illiteracy among Christians who can’t even articulate their worldviews to their families, much less anyone else. Relating anecdotes from his own life, Baucham teaches how it is biblically necessary and possible for a family to worship together not just in church, but in the in the home as well. Some feathers are likely to be ruffled when Baucham tackles topics like education, where he takes an unapologetic (but reasonable) stand against government-sponsored schools.

These points are instructive, convicting, and even controversial, but none is more interesting and potentially paradigm-shifting than one of Baucham’s final points: the family-integrated church. This model, which is essentially an organizational subset of church polity, does away with age-segregated ministries and shifts the locus of ministry to fathers as heads of families. Surveying the current landscape of evangelicalism, Baucham observes:

One day you visit a church, your teen goes off to the youth service, your little one goes off to children’s church, the baby goes to the nursery, and you and your spouse get a great seat in a plush auditorium with first-class music, professional drama, a relevant, encouraging, application oriented, non-threatening talk, and you get it all in just under an hour. Moreover, you look at the brochures, and it’s right there in black and white: “Our youth ministry exists to do the job that you’ve neglected all these years.” What a deal! We don’t have to keep the little one quiet, we get our needs met, and to top it off, the youth guy is going to disciple my teenager (whom I don’t even like right now). Who cares if the youth guy has only been married a few months and has never even attempted to disciple a child of his own. “Count me in!” [p. 178]

Baucham readily admits this is hyperbole, but anyone who has set foot inside an evangelical church in the last 30 years will recognize the massive age segregation that occurs. Children’s ministries — a subset in themselves — are further segregated by the grade levels assigned by schools. “Young marrieds” meet for Bible study in a different place than that wily “College and Career” crowd. The “seniors” groups go on bus tours to Gatlinburg and Branson, while the “Youth” take their mission trips to the inner city.

Age segregation is one of the most impenetrable non-biblical institutions within the church, yet there’s absolutely no Scriptural support for these divisions. This does not mean, of course, that Scripture prohibits such segregation, but it does call into question why it has become such a staple for church organization.

I suspect, along with Baucham, that such age segregation more reflects the American educational system than a biblical model of intergenerational interaction. Baucham suggests that a family-integrated model would better meet the needs of discipleship than what has in recent years become the traditional evangelical approach. Youth groups and other age-categorized ministries are discarded in exchange for teaching and ministry that is organized around families rather than age.

Amid a culture that has little respect for the elderly, such an approach could do wonders. Younger adults would have more opportunity to learn from believers who have walked the road ahead of them, and the harsh transition that teens often endure from adolescence to adulthood would be obviated by living their theology around adults instead of solely their peers.

This will be a tough pill for most churches to swallow, given the practical implications of moving to such a ministry paradigm. After all, there are few who have any experience with doing church this way. In the end, however, Christ’s church should be governed by biblical principles, no matter how unpragmatic they might be.

Baucham himself realizes the uphill battle, and sympathizes with his friends who do not share his views. This does not, however, stop him from raising the issue. And that is what I find so refreshing about the book. Baucham succeeds in his ability to shine light on some pretty significant flaws in the church while still retaining a place at the table. Family Driven Faith critiques without casting away.

Read it if you dare.

Politics and the Olympic Games

The news of protest and calls for boycotts (of various flavors) of the 2008 Olympic games raises the perennial question of whether or not politics should have any bearing upon sport. It’s really not a new issue at all. Think of the 1936 Nazi Olympics where Jesse Owens embarrassingly upset what was supposed to be Hitler’s Aryan showcase games. Think also of Munich, Moscow, and Los Angeles — Olympic games marked by political terror, propaganda, and absence.

On the one hand, there is a legitimate political stage to make certain reasonable political statements. After all, it is nation-states who sponsor and recognize the competitors. Athletes compete not on behalf of themselves (or of a shoe company), but on behalf of a country — a distinct political unity.

On the other hand, you have athletes who train for many years only to be bandied about by the whim of bureaucrats. Athletic competition does operate, at least in some respects, on a level outside the political sphere. It can give the tiniest nation parity with superpowers. While we live in nation-states, the nation-state does not comprise our whole being.

Make no mistake, the modern Olympics — with all its hokey mythologizing — gives itself more credit than is due. Citius, altius, fortius, indeed — but not without billions of dollars from official sponsors and licensing fees. The Olympics serve not only as a competition, but as a giant marketing platform for the host city and country. To be chosen for the Olympic Games is to be given legitimacy among a nation’s peers in the world.

Getting back to the news of the day, is it at all appropriate to protest the Games in part or whole for the misbehavior of a host country? Given the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I think so.

The Chinese govenrment’s human rights issues are legendary. From its population control policies that encourage (if not force) abortion, to its outright oppression of religious groups (be they Tibetan monks, Christian house churches, or Falun Gong adherents), the Chinese government evades answering to the world by brandishing its military and industrial might.

Like other conservative bloggers, I find myself in the strange company of Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who are calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies. If there is no boycott on the national level, I think at the very least that athletes themselves should mount some sort of protest. Perhaps medal winners could turn their medals around to hang from their backs while on the podium? That would be difficult for the Chinese officials to police, and it would speak volumes.

Alas, a protest or boycott is only a first step. Real, tough stances need to be taken against the Chinese government against its human rights policies, lest we sell our souls for a mess of cheap discount store goods.

How to name a church

Let’s pretend that you’re planting a new church.

If you’re a typical evangelical church plant in the United States, you’ve probably gathered together a few families and individuals in a community, and are meeting in homes, rented office buildings, or more commonly, a school building.

Hopefully, you’ve decided (and founded your church upon) sound doctrinal tenets and at least a few church leaders. Next comes a phase that’s perhaps even more difficult: naming your church. While there’s biblical precedent for the naming of animals, support for the naming of a church is scant.

Thankfully, we evangelicals (who are typically disoriented without written instruction) have found a way to remedy this. It’s really a rather simple process. Start with the list of words below:

  • Life
  • Community
  • Covenant
  • Creek
  • River
  • Chapel
  • Spirit
  • Grace
  • Faith
  • Calvary
  • Cross
  • Hope
  • Fellowship
  • Light
  • Redeemer
  • First
  • Road

Take any combination of the above words, in any order, and add them to your denominational (or lack thereof) preference, and tack on the word “Church.” Bingo. A brand new church name.

There will be outliers, of course—the Chevrolet Missionary Baptist Church I saw once driving through Harlan, Kentucky certainly didn’t fit the mold—but as a general rule, it works pretty well.

If you can think of any other church-name-words that I’ve missed, put them in the comments below.

Next week, we’ll look at how to name your subdivision.

Note to famous geographer: people aren’t cattle

University of California geography professor Jared Diamond — of Guns, Germs and Steel fame — opines in today’s New York Times about world consumption factors. These are measures of “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases.” Diamond observes the great chasm in consumption rates between first-world countries like the United States, and the rates of third-world nations. Developed nations out consume their underdeveloped neighbors by a factor of 32.

His article teeters on becoming alarmist, but Diamond is right about the gross disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Though the consumption factor may indeed be higher than ever before, it is not a new trend in the history of mankind to have a large gap between rich and poor. Diamond really falls short, however, in his oversimplificaiton of what causes world problems. Take this paragraph for example:

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn’t specify that it’s by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.

Diamond completely ignores cultural differences that contribute to terrorism. After all, there are plenty of developing third-world nations that aren’t involved in terrorist activity. They’re also conspicuously absent of militant Islam.

Such a view treats people as cattle, with the next meal as a people’s only motivating factor for taking up arms. It’s naïve to cast aside the religious and cultural beliefs of a people in the interpretation of its actions. Consumption is certainly important in a world economy, but it is never the sole catalyst for civilization.

Best of 2007

Continuing the tradition this blog from 2004, 2005, and 2006, I give you my best from the seventh year of this millennium:

Best Novel (read in 2007): Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. As I’ve described him before, Percy is like Dostoevsky with wit. The Second Coming is a novel about a rich, middle-aged man (who may or may not be going crazy) and his encounter with an escaped mental patient who has already been down the crazy road for quite awhile. All of this craziness leads up to, in typical Percian fashion, unparalleled sanity.

Best Nonfiction Book (read in 2007): Dick Keyes’ Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the power of Suspicion. Cynical that this is the best? Read my review.

Best Misguided Book (read in 2007): Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is funny, well-written, and Miller makes many valid, salient points. However, the author’s constant brooding and elevation of doubt to the status of virtue transforms a potentially groundbreaking book into little more than faddish whimsy.

Best Movie: Like last year, I only made it to one in-cinema movie. My favorite DVDs of the year were Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Apocalypto and Amazing Grace, which is comparable to Chariots of Fire for those of us who work in the political realm.

Best TV Show: 2007 will be known as the “Year In Which Television Went Down the Drain.” With striking writers having to take real jobs just to make ends meet, it’s been a pretty lousy year in the television industry. So, my best of this year is a toss-up. The Office is hilarious — when the episodes aren’t an hour long. I’m a fan of Lost, but episodes of the show seem to be living up to its name — only eight episodes will appear in 2008. The Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild is thoroughly entertaining, if not all that good for the appetite. House continues to be one of the smartest (read sarcastic) show on the air, and is unafraid to venture into difficult subject matter. These are all, of course, shows I mentioned last year, which must mean that 2007 was so 2006.

Best Science News: The research of Dr. Shinya Yamanaka which shows how induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells can behave like embryonic stem cells should put an end to embyro destructive stem cell research. It’s monumental news, and politicians who supported destructive research should see this as a way out of the unethical research battles.

Best Underappreciated Web App: The Google Browser Sync is handy little tool which syncs your Firefox bookmarks across multiple computers. The days of having to compile separate bookmarks for all the different computers I use are history.

Best Software: My friend Joe Carter introduced me to Lifehackers’ Texter application, and now I can hardly do without this boilerplate text macro. Check it out for yourself if you do any html coding.

Best Quote (campaign 2008): Howard Dean: “and we’re going to California and Texas and New York. And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaghhh!” — Howard Dean. Nevermind, that was 2004.

Best Quote (overall): When visiting a church while traveling, the lively pastor began a loud, boisterous rant during the sermon. My three year-old son, who is new to listening to preachers, looked at the preacher, then turned to me and remarked (aloud): “He’s silly!” I don’t know if his comment or my subsequent laughter caused more trouble.

Losing our souls for self

This observation by Eugene H. Peterson is noteworthy:

We live in a culture that has replaced soul with self. This reduction turns people into either problems or consumers. Insofar as we acquiesce in that replacement, we gradually but surely regress in our identity, for we end up thinking of ourselves and dealing with others in marketplace terms: everyone we meet is either a potential recruit to join our enterprise or a potential consumer for what we are selling; or we ourselves are the potential recruits and consumers. Neither we nor our friends have any dignity just as we are, only in terms of how we or they can be used.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, p. 38

Indeed.

We in the West excel at marketing commodities, and how natural it is for us to treat people as commodities as well. As the self has replaced the soul, we have become a culture populated, dominated, and interested in selves. Because the self is, after all, so very much more selfish than soul.

Living will to power?

I’ve always been uneasy with the concept of the “living will,” known in technical terms as an advance health care directive. Part of my uneasiness stems from the fact that I do not know at this moment, in this situation, what I would want to be done in a potential situation where my life circumstances may be dramatically different. I would not want an unknown medical professional, who practices an ethic unbeknownst to me, to interpret what I was thinking when I wrote the living will.

Today’s Washington Post has a facsinating op/ed by Charlotte F. Allen which raises some similar points:

According to [a 2004 Hastings Center Report], it seems that people talk a good game about living wills, especially when they’re healthy, but when their health begins to fail, they often have very different ideas about what they would be willing to undergo to stave off death for a little while. Furthermore, according to a 1990s study by the National Institutes of Health, even when patients have living wills, if those wills contain directives with which doctors and hospitals disagree (such as, I myself suspect, prolonging the patient’s life instead of terminating it), many doctors simply ignore the patient’s desires. Living wills, it would seem, are effective only if they happen to comport with doctors’ and bioethicists’ own theories about what is best for the patient anyway. For this reason, the authors of the Hastings study propose that instead of filling out a living will, people execute a durable power of attorney, a simple document that entrusts decisions about end-of-life care to a relative or friend who shares the signer’s moral beliefs about death and dying. That sounds about right to me.

Far too many Americans have bought into the notion that a nebulous characteristic called “quality of life” should be the determining factor in whether we should live or die. When doctors become the arbiters of our destiny, the outcome is likewise murky. A doctor who is a proponent of the “right to die” movement, for example, might interpret your case differently than one who found euthanasia morally repugnant.

The so-called “right to die,” is of course, one of those meaningless terms which are deployed only for political expediency. After all, if death is a “right,” then it is certainly a right of which none of us will be deprived. Death is much too easily obtained to be considered a commodity denied to a certain group. But “rights” language is politically charged, and therefore gets the issue of euthanasia on the table. The problem is that this issue is already on far too many tables in America’s medical community.

The other question that a living will does not answer is this: do our own wills carry the authority to decide whether we should live or die in any given circumstance? Legally this may be the case, but theologically speaking, there is only one who gives and takes life.

The Chess King of Dupont Circle

Last week’s Washington Post Magazine had a great story about Tom Murphy, a more or less homeless guy who spends his time in D.C.’s Dupont Circle hustling chess games and giving lessons.

If you’re at all interested in the world’s greatest thinking game, it’s a must read. Below is a video clip teaser for the article:

Continue reading “The Chess King of Dupont Circle”

A living, panting document

This weekend, I watched a re-run 2005 episode of Nova on PBS which chronicled the conservation of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The painstaking restoration of our nation’s founding documents was a worthy subject of documentary, and I’m glad I watched it. As with most documentaries these days, the narrator gave the viewer a “moral of the story” in the closing comments. I found these words very telling (emphasis mine):

Over the next 200 years people will view the documents; and the documents, in their new encasements of glass, aluminum and titanium, will look out on a very different world. One thing is certain, though the words remain the same, their meaning will continue to change, evolving, adapting to new times and circumstances, to a world that we, and their authors, can scarcely imagine.

Ironically, the meaning of these words from a 2005 documentary hasn’t changed a bit in the two years that have passed since they were first uttered. It still means today that the show’s producers are of the mistaken notion that words do not have (and hold) meaning.

It’s not surprising to see PBS pushing a postmodern view of interpreting texts. It is, however, alarming that the writers so blatantly take it for granted that every one thinks this way.

Then again, maybe they didn’t mean what they were saying.