"...we are God's co-laborers." 1 Cor 3:9

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Berger's Many Altars

The accomplished sociologist of religion Peter Berger has a new book entitled The Many Altars of Modernity, and a related blog post, in which he argues that secularization does not offer the best description of current trends in global religious observance and affiliation. According to Berger, secularization is primarily a creature of the West and has achieved varying levels of purchase even there (think Sweden vs. Texas).  Rather, he argues, the more viable theory is pluralization, the reality that faith cannot be taken for granted but is merely one conscious choice among many.
There is an underlying assumption here, shared by religious conservatives and their progressive antagonists (they just differ on what to do about it), and indeed (still) widespread both in academic and popular assessments of the contemporary world: that modernity means a decline of religion and its concomitant morality. Without dissecting this concept any further, this is what is meant by the concept of secularization; for our purposes here we can mean by secularism the idea that secularization is not just a fact, but one to be applauded and promoted. But is it a basic fact of our age? It is certainly a fact; but is it the fact by which our age is to be defined? I think it is not. It is not equally dispersed globally–strongly so in Europe, not at all in Nepal, somewhere in between in Texas. However, what is much more universally dispersed is a fact mentioned by John Paul II in his address to the Latin American bishops: that “faith is no longer taken for granted”. Rather, faith must be based on an individual decision.
The Pope of course hoped that people would choose the Catholic Church, others chose Pentecostalism, or a relaxed agnosticism, or even a militant atheism. And this is why I think that it is not secularization but pluralism that is the clue to understanding the situation of religion in the contemporary world. What I, in collaboration with some colleagues, have been trying to develop is a theory of pluralism, to take the place of the secularization theory which used to be dominant when I started out as a sociologist of religion and which is now hard to maintain in the face of global religious turbulence.
Here are some key propositions of such a theory: eventually to provide a paradigm for religion in a pluralist age. (Of course I cannot develop the full argument here. If the idea tickles you, read my book. Some of it, I promise, is fun.)
Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.
So far so good (though he goes on to offer an unnecessary criticism of the Reformed doctrine of sola fide). This revision does seem to corroborate with a general sense of the state of affairs we see emerging around the globe. Why the decline in numbers for Christians in the West? Because Christianity is no longer the unmarked religious affiliation in the West. It no longer pays to be a nominal Christian.

I am interested that Berger, however, still promotes a kind of secularization, but here the secular is merely the middle space in which adherents of different faith systems can meet and interact without violence or hostilities. This is a considerably depleted specimen, one that is marked by a thin pragmaticism.
Even a state that defines itself in strictly religious terms must leave space for the secular discourse if it wants to participate in the modern world. Saudi Arabia, while it makes sure that Islam governs every sector of society, cannot allow its pilots to fly airplanes according to sharia or its hospitals to consult fatwas while surgery is being performed. Religious freedom and some degree of separation between the state and religious institutions may be deemed to be morally desirable, but may also be functional for political stability—not a minor fringe benefit.
The movement from secularization theory to pluralization theory is not altogether new, but Berger clarifies the new arrangement rather well. I would add to his conclusion that religious systems that have a sophisticated and broad teaching on how to engage peaceably with those outside the religious community will fare particularly well in the pluralistic society.

Lastly and obviously, sociology can tell us where we are, but it can only make best guesses as to where we are going. Sociological conclusions are true until they are not (think the previous theory of secularization). History is too full of remarkable and unanticipated turns of event for us not to enter into this discourse with a strong dose of humility.

By the way, during my reading of the post, an ad for www.mormon.org popped up.

Read the rest here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The mysterious parcel

Just received this slightly distressed parcel from Germany. What could its mysterious contents be? 

How about a few copies of "Constituent Postponement in Biblical Hebrew Verse."

Easy, people, there should enough for everybody.

UPDATE: The print version of the book can be purchased here, while a digital copy can be purchased here in a few weeks.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Open Letter to the Disenchanted

A great post by a thoughtful mom and recovering teenager (who isn't?) at Tales from Shangri-La. It's really an open letter to thoughtful high school students in suburbia. If only I had such vision in my wandering years.

It opens,

Dear Friend,

You are caught up in a hundred little deaths of your soul these days. You are forced to sit through classes which are beneath you.

You know more about these books, these histories; you understand better than your peers. You are better read than some of your teachers. This is really true, at least in an academic sense.

In other classes you are made to study material you know you will never use. Odds are good you won't need that quadratic formula in graduate school or in cooking your dinner.

And this is an indignity. You, O Suburban Minion, must abide the endless chores of polite conversation, acrid lunchroom shufflings, leading questions, obvious observations, and endless chores.

You have better taste.

The open letter moves from here to a new vision of adolescent life.  Its worth the time so read the rest here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Summer of Our Discontent

I have a post entitled "What This Summer Taught Us about Humanity" over at On Faith that reflects on three public tragedies of the month of August and how they remind us of three truths about the human experience.

Though few of those who mourned Robin Williams actually knew him personally, many experienced a sort of intimacy borne in part out the of American celebrity culture but also out of his own gifted ability to relate onscreen. We knew him in a way, and we felt a true sense of loss. Even for those like me who could not watch the video of James Foley’s torment, the reality of the video made him known to us in a personal way; we were confronted with his last moments of life, an intimate knowledge to be sure. We have similarly come to know something of Michael Brown’s life and death through the many witnesses retelling the events of that night in Ferguson, Mo., and the many remembrances in the aftermath.

Disparate circumstances and motivations for each death, a similar profound sense of loss. How do we explain it?
Human death is always tragic; it represents a painful loss of life, relationship, and potential. The tragedy is compounded exponentially when the death is unnecessary or avoidable. That deep sense of loss or tragedy is felt as a sickening in our collective gut, an unanswerable grief that nevertheless begs for an answer. 
Despite the disparate circumstances and motivations for the events of August, we experience a similar and profound sense of loss for each one. How can we explain it? 
The holy scriptures attribute this profound sense of loss to a unique and inherent feature of a humanity that is created in the image of God. The creation story of Genesis teaches that humans have dignity because they bear and reflect the infinite glory of the Creator from whom all glory and dignity flow. The Christian gospel compounds the unique dignity of humanity when it teaches that God personally identified with the human race by first becoming a human and then dying a human death in order to reconcile humanity to him. 
As a result, death speaks to a truth that is broader than the individual event. There is a deep wrongness to it, a meaningful wrongness that surpasses the merely naturalistic explanations of solidarity within the species. We are touched with a timeless, expansive glory that makes death seem somehow slanderous, somehow deeply inappropriate.
 You can read the entire post here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Twitter and "intimacy gradients"

As someone who was an extremely late adopter of Twitter (I curiously stumbled in as many were discussing their escape plans), I am still getting a sense of the place. Alan Jacobs describes the platform well in this post on "intimacy gradients," though, of course, I have to take him at his word on the good ole days of Twitter, never having experienced them.
The key concept is intimacy gradients. In a well-known passage from A Pattern Language the authors write, 
The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. 
That's the passage as quoted in the book's Wikipedia page. But if you actually look at that section of the book, you'll see that the authors place a great deal of emphasis on the need for the ideal street café to create intimacy as well as public openness. Few people want always to "be on view"; some people almost never do. Therefore, 
In addition to the terrace which is open to the street, the cafe contains several other spaces: with games, fire, soft chairs, newspapers.... This allows a variety of people to start using it, according to slightly different social styles. 
And "When these conditions are present" — all of these conditions, the full appropriate range of intimacy gradients — "and the cafe takes hold, it offers something unique to the lives of the people who use it: it offers a setting for discussions of great spirit — talks, two-bit lectures, half-public, half-private learning, exchange of thought."
Twitter actually has a pretty highly developed set of intimacy gradients: public and private accounts, replies that will be seen automatically only by the person you’re replying to and people who are connected to both of you, direct messages, and so on. Where it fails is in the provision of “intimate places”: smaller rooms where friends can talk without being interrupted. It gives you the absolute privacy of one-to-one conversations (DMs) and it gives you all that comes with “being on view” at a table that extends “right into the street,” where anyone who happens to go by can listen in or make comments; but, for public accounts anyway, not much in between. 

Read the rest here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Breaking Bad at the Emmys and Sin

On occasion of the dominance of the AMC series "Breaking Bad" at last night's Emmy Awards, I thought I would re-post a little pop-culture theology piece that was originally posted following the series finale last fall. As some have point out, every artifact of human creativity tells us something about sin (is this not one implication of the doctrine of the fall?), but I think BB did us a special service by portraying human failure and its consequences in a manner that was entirely honest to human experience without straying into the absurd or surreal. And, yes, I am thinking about Tortuga's fate as I type that sentence.

In any case, to the piece:
Of course, one of the main elements of the story, perhaps the driving element, was the destructive and ultimate dehumanizing effects of sin.  This point was obvious from the first season of the show as many critics have pointed out.   I think the popularity of the show, however, was a direct result of how the theme of sin’s destruction/dehumanization was worked out through exceptionally well-done storytelling and characterization. 
Here are five lessons about sin we can learn from the five seasons of the award-winning show. 
1.       Self-destructive behavior often stems from old wounds and festering bitterness.  In the first episode of season one, we meet the character of Walter White, a man deeply embittered by a life that is not the picture of success he had expected in his younger years.  We see him acting out, yelling at Bogdan, his boss at the car-wash, and assaulting the jerks in the store who make fun of son with special needs.  These public explosions betray the infection of discontent and jealousy that had festered long before he ever stumbled upon that meth lab during Hank’s ride-along. 
The success of Gray Matters Technologies is a constant reminder throughout the series of “what could have been” for Walter, and the sudden reappearance of Gretchen and Elliot on Charlie Rose in the show’s penultimate episode (“Granite State”) initiates a final transition for Walter that leads to the show’s bloody climax. Their appearance reminds us that this whole mess began with what we might think of a common “domestic” sins stemming from unmet expectations. 
2.       Sin doesn’t trickle, it flows.  The hook of season one is the empathy that we feel for a terminally ill, high school chemistry teacher struggling to provide a stable life for his wife, unborn daughter, and teenage son.  Sure, the meth lab production plan is drastic, but his situation is drastic as well, we tell ourselves, and the discontinuity of a buttoned-up suburbanite timidly traveling the dark underworld of Albuquerque’s drug culture provides a bathtub full of exhilarating scenes. 
We entertain ourselves with unconscious questions of what we would do given such a choice.  At the outset, we might imagine ourselves in Walter’s place faced with the same decisions, but at some point we find ourselves alienated from him as he develops from protagonist to sympathetic antagonist to true antagonist.

Read the rest at faithstreet.com

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Family Worship

I have a post over at the Christward Collective, a blog of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, on the topic of family worship. It's the first of a two part series, dealing with some practically applied ideas that have helped our family gain some ground in our regular gathering for worship. We find that family worship works best when it supports and feeds into Sunday morning worship, particularly in regards to the means of grace.

By thinking of family worship in this way, we connect what we are doing in our living room to what is happening at church Sunday. If we think about our time as being part and parcel of the life of the church, we are able to see family worship as part of a larger movement of the gospel in the world. The heart of family worship is that it serves to help us be better worshippers on the Lord's Day with the covenant community. 
So in reading God's word as a family,
Our family better receives the preached word on Sunday if we have spent time in it during the week. That is why our family worship usually includes a direct reading of the Bible or at least allusions to biblical passages that address an issue we are talking about. We want ourselves and our children to be literate not only in the biblical text but the overarching themes and narrative that hold the biblical story together. We want them to be cognizant of the major biblical stories but also of the major biblical story.
 Read the rest here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

North Philly

This image haunts my hard drive, popping up from time to time during file perusal. From a trip last year to north Philly. The mural caught my attention then, and I had to pull over to snap a shot on my phone.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Can't We See Our Own Typos

File under the category of familiarity-blindness: every writer knows that self-editing can be an exercise in frustration. This article in Wired by Nick Stockton explains why. He also goes a long way in explaining the artistic impulse to defamiliarize which is the topic of one half of this blogger's doctoral thesis. Stockton writes,
The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.
As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads. 
This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article. In fact, I made both of these mistakes when I wrote this story. The first was a misspelling in a sentence that my editor had to read aloud for me before I saw it for myself. The second mistake was leaving out the entire preceding paragraph that explains why we miss our own typos.
Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.
This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors. Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.
HT: Prufrock. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Human Responses to Death

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)                                          

One response to death is to accept certain eastern notions of death as the dissolution of the soul back into nothingness, or perhaps everythingness.  In this approach death is not evil, not a tyrant, but simply the means to unspeakable, un-individuated existence, in which the soul becomes one with the world.  In death the soul goes out as a breath mingling with air from which it came. Death is not sad because it is not meaningful.

Another response is to deny death.  This response is perhaps the most common in the modern West.  These folks remove death from their presence.  They avoid it at all costs.  They avoid even the thought of it.  In his book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Earnest Becker writes:
The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.
The truth of this statement is painfully felt in the worried, fretful, and anxious existence of the both the helicopter parent and elderly person obsessed with anti-aging remedies.  Death avoidance tends to lead to life avoidance.

There is a new response, or at least new to the mainstream of society, which is the one that makes death a fetish, an obsession.  This response is clearly seen in the spate of horror films which loosely package images of grisly and graphic deaths strung together by a hopelessly anemic plot.

The Christian response to death is different.  The Christian views death as deeply wrong, sad, and defeated.

The resurrection of Jesus is positive proof that Jesus’ crucifixion fundamentally changed the nature and effect of death.  Where once death was a terminal curse, it is now a corridor to communion with God and, ultimately, the resurrected life.  For those in Christ, death is the soil out of which eternal life springs.

This does not take away the grief that attends to death, but it means that our grief is felt against the backdrop of hope not despair. That is the bite, the sting that Paul is taunting in 1 Cor 15:55.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Highbrow, lowbrow, and points in between

In The New York Times Sunday book review, you can find an collision of sensibilities over the value of artistic hierarchy between highbrow, midbrow, and lowbrow.

Thomas Mallon writes for the pro-brow party:
On the whole, however, the sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.) 
Criticism is the realm in which I’d prefer to see hierarchy abide. In the end, we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless “liking” or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read. With everyone clamoring for recognition in the same ether — with everyone now, in effect, his own publisher — our judgments are ever less nuanced, ever more nasty or stupidly appreciative. Speed is imperative, and rumination is out. The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.
Pankaj Mishra begs to differ:
Such distinctions as lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow are now mostly useful in identifying their early adopters: a tiny minority of artists and intellectuals who felt a sense of siege as capitalism became global. Political defeat, isolation and irrelevance had devastated their old presuppositions about art and its relation to human beings. Modernism was their last desperate attempt to reimagine modernity, to move beyond bourgeois notions of representation and harmony. But it turned out to be a patchy and mostly elitist phenomenon.

Modernism is not even a memory in large parts of the world where capitalist modernity completes its work of annihilating traditional cultures and imposing the harsh imperatives of economic rationalization. In India, millions of rural migrants move straight from folk enactments of the “Ramayana” to local imitations of Fox News and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Television, now supplemented by social media, may yet diminish the postindustrial West into the listless and sterile China of Herzen’s fearful imagination. But it is a “rising” China that seems to be obliterating individuality much more vigorously with, among other things, clones of “American Idol” and “The Voice.”

The West's Fear of Islam

This is a worthwile piece in The Week:
"Why hasn't there been a greater response from the once-Christian West to the plight of Christians? It's not for lack of outrageous events. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that 80 percent of acts of religious discrimination in the world have Christians as their victims. And these are starting to poke through the headlines. The purge in Mosul attracted some attention, the kidnapping and threatened murder of mostly Christian girls by Boko Haram, even more. But much less is said about the fate of Syrian Christians or Copts. Still less is said about even more obscure religious minorities like Yazidi and Druze who face discrimination from ISIS.
One reason for our silence, suggested by John Allen Jr. in his book The Global War on Christians, is that the modern humanitarian West has difficulty seeing Christians as "native" to third world nations. Their imagination of "global" Christianity is one of a religion implanted by Europeans and Americans through a violent, racist, and discredited colonialism. Of course this isn't true in these cases, as there were Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt long before there were any in Britannia or Biloxi. Allen also cited French philosopher Regis Debray's view that in Christian persecution the victims are "'too Christian' to excite the Left, and 'too foreign' to excite the Right."
But Ernesto Galli della Loggia, the lead editorial writer for Corriere della Sera, offered one provocative suggestion for Europe's unwillingness to get involved: fear of Islam....
As comedian Penn Jillete elegantly pointed out, the way people avoid giving offense to Islam amounts to a damning condemnation in itself. It is perhaps the worst Western insult offered to Islamic people in the Middle East that we almost universally assume there's not much point in asking them to recognize the human rights of Christians. 
We don't even expect polite reciprocity. Italy is expected to welcome one of the largest mosques in the world, funded by Saudi Arabia. But no one can build even a modest church in Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, Christians can't even repair a wall in a church without explicit permission from the sovereign. Qatar has laws that punish people who convert from Islam to Christianity with death, but there's no planned boycott of their upcoming World Cup because of it. We watch ISIS blow up what many consider the tomb of the prophet Jonah and just sigh, helplessly."

Monday, July 28, 2014

McLean Station Open

This is big news for RTS Washington. Now students can take the train to class from anywhere in the Washington area as well. Because the Metro is connected to Virginia rail, Baltimore, Philly, and points north. Many of our out of town students can commute in on the train, use the travel time as study time, and avoid the DC traffic.

Take the McLean Station stop and walk the bridge over Hwy-123 to our building at 1651 Old Meadow Road.

Drop by. We would love to see you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Death of a Friend

My sister Anne recently posted two remembrances of our friend Mark who took his own life in late April. The pieces were composed and compiled with many more remembrances of Mark for his family so that they might see the impact he had on those who knew him. Each of them reflect the many ways in which his friends were blessed by him.

I wrote one of the remembrances. It is never easy to write about a friend who has died, and those feelings are deeply complicated in the case of suicide. Mark professed Christ throughout his life, and he gave clear expression to the fruit of the Spirit, which, of course, compounds the questions being asked those he left behind.
I knew that Mark wrestled with deep things, personal things. The life of the Christian is often marked by conflict, spiritual and otherwise, and I know these matters concerned him deeply. I am profoundly saddened that the conflict isolated him and that his burden seemed too great for him to bear in this life...
I miss Mark. We had fallen out of touch in recent years, but he is one of those people whom the Lord used to influence me in my early Christian life. I miss him sharing this world with us, but I do know that our Good Shepherd lives, and he gathers his sheep to himself. He knows them and they know his voice.
We don't have all the answers to the questions that death raises, but we do have hope in God who is good, and just, cares for his sheep, and has conquered death. Anne remembers Mark in light of God's goodness:
It is a sadness to me that Mark is not here to listen to his friends remember him, and that such a gifted and insightful person is not here any more. I trust and hope that he is now with the One who fully knows him and loves him and enjoys him as he was made -- the Giver of all of his personality and significant talents and gifts.
When we grieve those who have passed away, we are right to give thanks to God "from whom all blessings flow" including the blessing of that person for that season in our lives (though sometimes the pain-blessing analysis seems unbalanced to be sure). Acknowledging that fact does not relieve the grief, but it does help us to grieve as those who have hope (1 Thess 4:13-14), hope in a good God who turned death on its ear by taking it upon himself.

Our grief is real and often overwhelming. Christ was overwhelmed by it too, he cried out to his Father from his valley of the shadow, and he can empathize with us now as a result. Like his grief, our grief has a telos, it has an end.

You can read Anne's post here.