Category Archives: Uncategorized

Corruptions of a Frenetic Culture

There’s much to be said about our frenetic culture of immediacy and its attendant follies. In this introduction to his essay in yesterday’s NY Times called “Among the Disrupted,” Leon Wieseltier laments various media-driven digital age cultural corruptions in this furiously brilliant jeremiad:

Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.)

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.

 


Silencing Women

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote this interesting piece in the NY Times on Sunday on the experience of women speaking up in professional settings.

When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.

They cite several studies and share a number of anecdotes to support their contention. It ought to be considered widely, perhaps especially by church leadership teams made up of women and men.

I wonder what other women think about this. Have you or do you experience these kinds of dynamics? In what ways? Can you think of intentional practices you’d like to see leaders develop that would invite and encourage full participation?


Golf in 2015

There is indeed much about which to be excited in 2015 in the world of golf. The Open Championship returns to St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy is on a roll, and Tiger Woods apparently has things sorted out and will continue his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 major championships as a professional.

As Bob Harig notes, Woods is doing things a little differently this year. Rather than playing only tournaments at courses where he’s comfortable, he’s beginning his season at a course he’s not played for some time. It’s a good thing he’s challenging himself, though it’s not necessarily a sign of any sure success in the majors.

It will certainly be exciting to have a healthy Tiger Woods back in action, but as I’ve argued a few times (here, here, and here), even if he wins one or two more, he won’t catch or surpass Nicklaus.

Here’s an interesting article on the emerging rift between Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson leading up to the Ryder Cup debacle last September. For some mysterious reason, the Euros just absolutely own the Americans in this event. The U. S. won in 2008, but that was the year of the disastrous European captaincy of Nick Faldo. Tom Watson may not have been the ideal captain this last year, but in the end it’s up to the players.


Mystery & Hiddenness in Mark

Discussing Mark 6:45-52, Richard Hays sums up the hiddenness and mystery that surround Mark’s depiction of Jesus:

[T]hose who have picked up the clues Mark has offered will perceive that God is strangely present in Jesus, but their response—at least at this point in the story—will be one of reverent reticence. By refusing to trumpet the secret of Jesus’ identity, instead signifying it through mysterious symbol-laden narrative, Mark is teaching his readers to wonder and to listen more deeply before they start talking about things too wonderful for their understanding (Reading Backwards, p. 26).


Corrupted Ministry Motivations

This article in Leadership Journal is an excellent exploration of the factors that can pervert ministry motivations. It’s not merely revelatory of one church’s destruction but of how corrupting dynamics are at work in the hearts of ministry practitioners and those in church leadership.

We want to believe the best about ourselves and so we overlook or fail to recognize our true motivations. And we want to be effective for the Kingdom of God, so we don’t discern when destructive values (efficiency, growth, etc.) begin to orient and then dominate our ministry vision.

The article features Tim Gaydos. He and his family offered me generous hospitality when I took my son out to Seattle in September. We had several great conversations about the character of genuine ministry and how our hearts are so easily and subtly corrupted.


Loving our Neighbor in an Age of Terror

I had an interesting conversation with my son last night about the terrible violence in Paris. Among other things we talked about the increase of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and here in the United States. Life will be increasingly difficult for average Muslims who are law-abiding and peace-loving citizens of France, other European countries, and the U. S.

We wondered aloud about how to be faithfully Christian in a climate of violence, anger, confusion, denunciation, suspicion, and fear. Those are inevitable responses on the part of many citizens to what has happened. But what about Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God? How do we obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves?

I know how much I am grieved when I hear about Christians doing violence in the name of Jesus. I am ashamed of being identified with that sort of betrayal of the way of Jesus. I want to tell people that Christians aren’t like that; that our Scripture does not justify violence and murder.

I saw a Muslim family from our neighborhood in the grocery store a few days ago – two parents and two middle school-aged girls. I thought of them last night and wondered how they’re doing. I was thinking that being a good neighbor to them would entail doing to them what I would want done to me.

Are they fearful of now going to the store? Do they worry about being identified with murderous violence? Are they worried about how their daughters will be treated at school? Do they feel that others in our town now view them with suspicion? Do they feel that they want to tell everyone that they’re not terrorists? Do they want others to know that Muslims aren’t like that?

There is much that should be said and done in response to this act of evil. Certainly those nearer to the horror are able to help those affected.

But where I live, embodying loyalty to Jesus may involve being watchful of how such events can stir up emotions that confuse and perhaps diminish our fundamental loyalty to King Jesus and thus to love our neighbors as ourselves.


In Praise of Brevity

In her response to N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God in Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters (Spring 2014), Beverly Roberts Gaventa takes issue with the book’s massive size. She strikes a note in favor of succinctness that resonates with anyone attempting to read it.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God will attract a wide readership, especially among younger scholars who want to see how Wright’s earlier work is here consolidated and expanded. My closing remarks are addressed to them: please do not take either the size of this book or the tone of much of its argumentation as a model for your own work. It is possible to make even very important arguments with brevity. Wayne Meeks instructed an entire generation of students and scholars with The First Urban Christians, which comes in at a lean 299 pages. Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul has had an enormous impact on the study of Paul, with a concise 240 pages. A bigger book does not guarantee a better argument (p. 79).


Advice for Academic Job-Seekers

Next week religious studies scholars from around the world will gather in San Diego for the yearly meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Many people will be involved in job interviews, both interviewing candidates and being interviewed for jobs.

This can be an exhausting and bewildering experience for job-seekers. Our Ph.D. programs don’t do much to help us face these situations, but here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the last decade of being on hiring committees and going through interviews myself.

First, focus on enjoying the conversation and not on passing the test. A job interview is not a doctoral comprehensive exam. Don’t stress about making sure you know the answer to every question that might come up. Preparing as if it were an exam will make you anxious, perhaps defensive, and will prevent you from enjoying the conversation. Getting to the interview stage of a search process indicates that the committee has seen your application materials and wants to interview you (probably along with 10-12 other people) out of the 100-150 other applicants. They know you know your stuff and they assume that there are probably areas outside of your expertise where you’re not as sharp as you’d like to be.

While you may be worried about having your ignorance exposed, committee members are interested in finding out if you’d be a good colleague and whether they can feel confident that you’ll act like a normal human if they put you in front of students in a classroom. So, relax and enjoy the conversation.

Second, reveal how you think along with what you think. I was once involved in an interview process where a candidate answered a question by introducing the complexities of the larger issue, how he weighed them, and then how he would go about answering the specific questions. His response led to quite a vigorous discussion among the rest of us and we almost forgot we were in an interview situation. But after several other straightforward and rather boring interviews, we so enjoyed getting past preliminary niceties and engaging in discussion over a complicated and pressing issue. We sort of forgot ourselves and later reflected on how the candidate participated as if he were already one of our colleagues. A few may have disagreed with his ultimate conclusion, but we all gained respect for how he thought about it.

Third, ask informed questions about the institution. As this article indicates, asking about matters that are found on the institution’s website indicates laziness and lack of interest. Do your homework on the institution and then ask about the ethos of the department. Do they feel supported by the administration? How is the relationship of the department to other academic units at the institution? What about relationships with the institution’s constituency? Are faculty expected to help promote the school and in what ways? In what ways does the school encourage faculty research? What do faculty enjoy about the institution? These are questions that may generate good discussion and create opportunities for follow-up questions, allowing you not only to learn about the institution but also demonstrate your curiosity.

Fourth, ask personal questions of the interviewers. It’s likely that those interviewing at academic conferences are scholars and not administrators. Or, they’re scholars who have been drawn into administration over the years and yearn to get back to their research agenda. Inquire about their interests and ask good follow-up questions. Be interested in them as people and enjoy that conversation. This is the human element that makes a lasting impression when interviewers return home to put together notes from the interview process.

In an interview process about a decade ago, a colleague made a remark that I’ve never forgotten. His basic rule at the interview stage is to determine whether or not this person is the one he wants to run into at 8:00 a.m. each day for the next fifteen years. Something to keep in mind for those anticipating job interviews.


The Multinational People of God

In anticipation of a class discussion on Revelation, I was going back through Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman and revisited this wonderful passage on the church’s identity and mission:

The beautiful vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9) is – or should be – at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. This is what God is up to in the world

Heavenly People of God Worshiping

The vision of a heavenly, and ultimately eschatological, reality is foundational to the church’s mission of global evangelization, its work for peace and justice among the nations, and its rejection of all forms of nationalism. Unfortunately, Christians have often been attracted to one or another of these essential marks of the church rather than all of them together. Contemporary Christian faith, if inspired by the vision in Revelation 7, would no longer be split between those who want to convert the lost and those who work for peace. Participating in the missio Dei did not, and does not, accord well with cafeteria-style Christianity.

If Christians around the globe truly understood themselves as part of this international community, and fully embraced that membership as their primary source of identity, mission, and allegiance, it is doubtful that so many Christians could maintain their deep-seated national allegiances, or their suspicions of foreigners. This would require a radical transformation within much of the Christian church, a recapturing of the wisdom of the earliest church. The second-century writing called the Epistle to Diognetus captures the spirit of Revelation 7 (and probably the entire New Testament), offering what is arguably the most appropriate attitude for Christians to have toward the country in which they happen to live:

[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” (5:5-6)

Reading Revelation Responsibly, pp. 133-34.


On Self-Deception

I’ve had a couple conversations lately about self-deception. In exegesis class we discussed 1 John 1:8 in which John describes certain people whose lives betray their profession. “They deceive themselves and the truth is not in them.”

In an altogether different context, I’ve spoken with friends recently about sports figures who do not – cannot? – assess themselves rightly. The most recent obvious example is Kobe Bryant. His knowledge of the game and his competitive drive, along with his ego, are undeniable. But his body is breaking down and he doesn’t seem to be able to acknowledge that a 36 year old cannot do what 25 year old can.

It isn’t easy to watch aging sports figures who have difficulty evaluating themselves rightly as they age and who don’t know when to hang ‘em up. They have accumulated years of wisdom and their memories are fresh of precise performance at the highest level. They look at younger competitors and are convinced that they can not only keep up, but outperform them. It can be devastating when competitive realities indicate otherwise.

With these things in mind, several lines from U2’s new album have struck me as pointing to a healthy self-awareness, a mature self-knowledge.

250-2

On “Volcano,” perhaps referring to their own history as musicians and “rock stars,” Bono sings:

The world is spinning fast tonight
You can hurt yourself tryin’ to hold on
To what you used to be
I’m so glad the past is all gone?

On “Cedarwood Road,” Bono sings about a childhood friend and about his experiences growing up in turbulent times. He refers to the need to have enemies, but that the worst are ones that are hidden. A friend can help identify them, and indeed it does take a friend, since they’re usually self-generated or otherwise internal, hidden from oneself.

It was a warzone in my teens
I’m still standing on that street
Still need an enemy
The worst ones I can’t see
You can . . . you can

And finally, in “The Troubles,” they note the folly of being self-assured that one knows one’s own ways.

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

Self-knowledge doesn’t come easily, and one doesn’t get it without humility and without genuine friends whose love makes them honest.


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