Saturday, April 27, 2013

From the Archives: Once More, With Logistics

Seven years ago today, my daughter was born. On honor of that event, I'm reposting here a reflection from the archives on that day and the lessons learned from having TWO children instead of one.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner claims that an ideal story will have three central characters. Two is too few, because then there will be only one relationship to explore. But add a third character, and one has six relationships: the relationships of A to B, B to C, and A to C, of course; but also A’s relationship to the BC pair, B’s to the AC pair, and C’s to the AB pair. The relational dynamics made possible by a third character creates just the level of complexity needed for a good story. Add a fourth character, however, and things get TOO complex. You can do the math yourself, but in that case what you have are twenty-five relationships. Too much for any normal human being, lacking in divine powers, to handle.

This year our family welcomed its fourth character. Evan’s identical twin, Isabella, was born shortly after 6 PM on a pleasant Oklahoma spring day with nary a tornado in sight. There was, of course, the usual business of my wife enduring labor and delivery (only 22 hours of labor this time), me cutting the cord, Isabella exercising her lungs for the first time, both parents getting the chance to hold the new arrival, etc. But these events and activities, which seemed so significant when Evan was born, were put in their proper perspective this time around by the inescapable reality faced by every second-time parent: logistics.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Want to Save the World? Build inclusive communities where people matter

...or so says Frances Moore Lappé in a recent article, "Could Our Deepest Fears Hold the Key to Ending Violence?" The essay beautifully synthesizes a range of related insights that have impressed themselves on me through the years--insights which have been vividly driven home for me through my work with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), especially facilitating AVP workshops in prisons.

Everyone wants to matter. More importantly, we want to matter to a community. Pugnacious communities that encourage violence prey on those of us who feel marginalized, who for one reason or another feel as if we don't belong or as if our contributions go unnoticed. What these communities offer is seductive precisely because violence vividly affects the world. The impact of violence, though negative, is inescapable. A community built around the valorization of violence thus offers the promise of finding belonging through actions that undeniably matter.

Who can deny that the Boston bombers mattered, that their actions made a difference in human lives? The difference was an awful one, a shattering difference. But for those who hunger for relevance, those who doubt their own significance in the world, violence is an obvious answer. And when a shadow community frames such vivid destructive actions as heroic, and treats those who commit them as champions of the shadow community, the outcomes are as predictable as they are tragic.

If you are disaffected, afraid of irrelevance, alienated from those around you, it matters a whole lot who reaches out to you. If extremists defined by in-group/out-group ideologies reach out to you, you're likely to reach back if you're hungry enough. Much depends on where else you can go to get fed.

When Jesus said, "Feed my lambs," one can't deny that real food, the sort that fills actual human bellies, was intended. But maybe another kind of food was also on his mind--the kind of food that inclusive communities can provide, when they offer creative outlets for making a positive difference in the world and a sense of belonging built around such meaningful creativity. At its best, that is what the Church can be. At its worst, it becomes defined by in-group/out-group ideologies, marginalizing some members who become disaffected and angry, and feeding others the wrong kind of food.

So, what can we do, each of us, to help make our own communities places where the alienated can come to feel as if they've come home? Where can we help build communities of this sort? How can we make sure that our world is a banquet of opportunities for real inclusion and creative (rather than destructive) meaning, so that no one is tempted by the poisoned food?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tchaikovski, Violin Virtuousity, and Transcendence

Yesterday I played the 2nd Movement of the Tchaikovski Violin Concerto in church. A friend made an audio recording of it on his smart phone and sent it to me. While I thought momentarily about posting it here (inevitable amateur glitches and all), it seemed that for those who may be unfamiliar with this exquisite piece of music it would be better to post a performance that is just as exquisite as the music itself.

So, here's what happens when one of the greatest violinists of the 20th Century, David Oistrakh, takes on one of Tchaikovski's more heart-rending compositions:

It's performances like these which enliven for me Hermann Lotze's case for including beauty among the pieces of evidence to be considered when assessing worldviews that posit something transcendent. I've quoted this before, but here's how Lotze puts it at the start of his Outlines of the Philosophy of Religion:

Then there are the...aesthetic feelings that yield themselves admiringly to the beautiful which they discover in the world, and by means of it are incited to form a picture of an ideal world. This they do without any egoistic interest in the consolation desired; but rather with the sure conviction that what is so fair and full of significance cannot be an accidental product of that which is without significance, but must be either the very Principle of the world or closely related to its creative principle.

Lotze couldn't have had Oistrakh's performance above in mind when he spoke of that which is "so fair and full of significance," but had he heard it I'm sure he would have pointed to it and said, "This."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Shadow of Testing--or, How We're Poisoning Public Education

While I get ready for finals week at OSU the rest of my family is in the midst of a different kind of testing. Mandated state testing of public school students.

It's a grim time of year--a time when the anticipation of testing ramps up my son's anxiety, a time when my wife risks losing her teaching license if she should make the mistake of comforting a weeping student overcome by a barrage of questions that, because of a learning disability, he can't answer.

My son, who's in the fourth grade, is in his second year of it. My wife, who has a Master's Degree in  Special Education, has been dealing with it every year since she started teaching special ed in the public schools. My daughter, in the first grade, doesn't start taking tests for a few more years--but her curriculum is already being changed to accommodate the demands of state testing.

This last concern may be the most serious of all. If the problems with testing could be sequestered to a couple of weeks in late spring, that would be one thing. But the testing mania that has overtaken American public schools casts a very long shadow, one that darkens the lives of all public school students. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

To Those Who Think Death is the Answer

Sometimes I know that something is true even as I find myself incapable of understanding how.

I know there are those who think about causing death, imagine ways to do it, formulate plans, carry them out. Human beings die because they set out to make it so. And they had reasons, reasons which made it seem to them as something to be done

My wife ran her first endurance event--a marathon--at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, a race founded to remember and honor all those who died when Timothy McVeigh drove a Ryder Truck up to the Murrah Building and detonated the explosives inside. When it happened my wife was a student at the University of Central Oklahoma, some 30 miles away. When she and those around her felt the concussive force of the blast, they knew something terrible had happened, something to shatter their world.

In a couple of weeks my wife will run that course again--this time the half-marathon. But that event will carry with it the specter of another shattering. Earlier today a friend of mine, someone I've known for more than twenty years, crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon. For about half an hour she and her friends and family were celebrating her accomplishment. Then came the explosions. 

She was shaken up, her achievement overshadowed by the bloody aftermath of violence. Had she been a slower runner--about half an hour slower--the effects for her might have been far worse.

And I sit here and I think about those who find their answers in death, sometimes their own and sometimes the deaths of others. They find their answers in making living people dead. 

I know that it's true. And I've devoted many scholarly hours researching the ideologies of violence, the patterns of thinking that motivate the commission of horror. I can describe their structure---bifurcation, moral disqualification, sacred mission, zero-sum struggle death death death and the good will rise from the ruins if only we destroy the right things make the right people dead it will all be better the hidden good that has been held back by life will rise blooming free by the creation of corpses.

I think it helps me understand, but it's like putting a grid over chaos and saying, "Hey, look! A grid!"

Yes, there are patterns of thinking that culminate in a spray of blood. But they are, for those who follow those patterns, nothing but a grid. There's no substance. Just the illusion of it. That's the only thing to be said, in the end, to those who think death is the answer. And I suppose it can be summed up even more simply than that. 


Friday, April 12, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Sex

Rachel Held Evans has an interesting new blog post, "Is Doubt an STD?", that addresses a worrisome practice she's observed in some evangelical Christian communities: treating the religious doubts of young adults as if they were nothing more than a symptom of a guilty conscience--more often than not guilt about having sex.

Although she does an excellent job of critiquing this practice, there's one point she doesn't make (at least not in this post) that I want to raise here. But first, let's look a bit more closely at the worrisome practice. The idea underlying it is, roughly, this: If you feel guilty about something you did that's condemned by your inherited faith, you may decide to strike back at what's condemning you--by challenging the tenets of the faith. 

And, of course, since we're talking about young adults here, the "something you did" is usually sex.

So, rather than take a young adult's doubts about their inherited faith at face value, a pastor or religious mentor cuts to the chase and asks, "So who have you been sleeping with?" And this, of course, is supposed to uncover the root issue--guilt. The questions will be answered through repentance, the doubts laid to rest once one has confessed to getting laid.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

And it's here...

...the paperback edition of God's Final Victory!

I'm tempted to say that this book is the definitive philosophical defense of Christian universalism, that it not only shows that Rob Bell was too tentative in his universalist leanings but explains why in terms that are philosophically powerful and comprehensive. But I'm Norwegian, and Norwegians aren't allowed to thump their own chests like that.

So I'll just point out instead that if fear of the triple-digit hardcover price has kept you from picking up your copy of what Keith Yandell (no universalist himself) calls "the state of the art of argument in support of universalism" that "should be taken into account in any discussion of it"--well, fear no more!  Add "the most complete discussion to date of the relevant philosophical and theological issues" (Thomas Talbott) to your book shelf now, for less than it would cost to feed a family of four at your local Italian restaurant.

Well, unless it's a cheap Italian restaurant.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Of Heifer Ranch and Urban Slums...with Gratuitous Baby Goat Pictures

This weekend I traveled with a group of OSU students to Heifer Ranch in rural Arkansas. While there, a baby goat sucked my finger, I was cured of amoebic dysentery by the sale of a cooking pot, and I slept in an urban slum in the company of a dozen college students and a speckled king snake.

I suppose a word about Heifer Ranch is in order. It’s an experiential learning facility run by Heifer International—a development organization that helps vulnerable communities improve their lives and resources by providing livestock animals and related assistance. The centerpiece of Heifer Ranch is its Global Village: a series of campsites that approximate the living conditions of the people that Heifer helps, as well as some that Heifer can’t help (I’ll get to the latter in a bit). Groups can spend a night in the village, divided by lottery into “families” that are each assigned one of the campsites as well as a modest basket of resources. If you end up at the refugee campsite, your basket is empty. And no, you aren’t allowed to bring in your own food.