Thursday, May 28, 2015

Credibility and the Bible

So this dude, Andy Gill, followed me on twitter for a little while a few months back. I have few enough followers that I generally check out who's following me. I hadn't heard of Andy before, but he's got a sweet looking website and a lot of twitter followers, so people must know who he is. He seems pretty cool and progressive and looking to take new angles on issues of faith (much like myself). He's also been soliciting guest posts on his blog with suggested topics. I decided to take a crack at one. It took me an embarrassingly long time to finish it up, but I did and I sent it off. Of course I'll share the link if it's ever actually published, but I wanted to share the content here with my readers in any event. Without further ado...

There’s a lot of well-earned skepticism when it comes to the Bible. Between historical analysis challenging some long held assumptions and the relegation of scripture to a weapon in the culture wars, it seems pretty easy for just about anyone to say just about anything using the Bible for support.

I think the real question people ask when they ponder the Bible’s credibility is really how credible are those who interpret it. How do I know that Preacher X is getting things right, especially when Preacher Z says something different?

I’m not sure you really can know.

The world these days is pretty comfortable with uncertainty, but when it comes to matters of faith, we’d all really like to find some. A sense of certainty has sort of become the Holy Grail in this post-modern world of skepticism and doubt.

But we only find certainty when we choose to believe. That’s faith. I won’t say we should believe blindly, but at some point we must choose to know what we can’t really know. We can doubt everything, but in the end that leaves us with nothing.

So perhaps the question isn’t whether the Bible is credible, but rather “How do I find anything credible in the Bible?” That’s a far more interesting question, because it has a real answer.

The first step is understanding what the Bible is as opposed to what we’d like it to be. Things would be simple if scripture were simply a direct communication from God: do this; don’t do that. There are lots of dos and don’ts, of course, but they’re filtered through human writers, across cultures, and buried in deep layers of history and context.

The Bible is a testimony of God’s interaction with God’s people over a huge span of time. It represents the best attempt by a ragtag people to collect, compile, and care for a unique understanding of the world, its creator, and how to best live.

If we expect it to speak authoritatively on science or history or psychology, we’re going to get burned. If we expect it to possess encyclopedic clarity or even a unified vision, we’re going to be deeply disappointed. If we expect the Bible to be a self-contained oracle of wisdom, we’re likewise going to come up short. It is these endeavors that have harmed the Bible’s credibility.

The Bible doesn’t purport or pretend to be anything but those words God’s people found helpful in understanding our place in the world. For me, it’s credible because of that tradition, not in spite of it. Yes, there were things left out and things included for all manner of strange and biased reasons, but that is precisely the point. It’s not a compendium. It’s not a history. It’s the Bible. It’s a carefully crafted message, but one with minority reports, contradictions, and competing voices. It’s not self-evident and its meaning, despite what some may tell you, is anything but plain sense.

Scripture is credible for what it is.

The Bible has a history. It was authored by real people and passed down – first as oral tradition, then written. It was compiled by editors, enlarged, enhanced, and expanded. Eventually some people chose which books would become the Bible and which would remain merely good.

The Bible has a history, which means it can be explored. We can search the realms of science – psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, economics, physics, linguistics – to give us insight into what exactly these writers, editors, and compilers might have meant for us to know. We delve into diverse and divergent contexts, cultures, and conditions to give ourselves fresh eyes and new perspectives.

To find something credible in the Bible we ask questions and we do our best to answer them, using all the resources at our disposal. There is a long tradition of faithful people – the very community who preserved and passed on this Bible – still active and alive today in all its wildness and activity. The world in which we live is a testament to the God from whose being it sprang. Our own experiences are paramount in helping our mind approach credible conclusions, asking ourselves not necessarily, “can I prove it,” but at least, “does it make sense to me?”

In a world where we challenge everything and we’re not sure there is such a thing as truth, it’s the best we can do. There is certainly some measure of faith involved. We must believe there is a God out there to find. If so, we must believe also that this God gave us some way to access the divine. We must have faith humanity is important enough to stumble upon some measure of truth, if only dimly and clumsily.

In the end I do believe these things. I do so because, as improbable as it seems, with all my explorations, through every question and test, through as much research as my little brain can manage, the Bible always seems to stand up.

I believe the Bible is credible because it points to Jesus Christ and I have chosen to have faith in Jesus Christ. Not the words about Christ or the religion founded in his name, but Christ himself. I believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is important, because the message of radical, sacrificial love, extending even to our enemies, is unique.

I might be wrong about Jesus and the Bible, but for me, the notion that love really does win – over power and violence and hatred and selfishness – that if we give love enough time (an eternity, maybe) it can make not just us, but all of existence into what it’s supposed to be, this notion just somehow seems worth living (and dying) for regardless of its ultimate credibility.

I have faith that God is love and that Jesus accurately represents God to the world. I interpret the Bible in light of these beliefs and I think it’s allowed me to find credibility there.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Cruel World in Which to Raise a Little Girl

So, we're a game playing household here. We've probably got upwards of 50 games on shelves and in drawers all over the place. As Eva has grown up, we've wanted to keep challenging her with new things. Once she learned to count a bit and tell the difference between colors, I figured Candyland would be a great way to start her on games - super simple and also fun (at least in my very old memories).

I grew up playing Candyland. A lot. I have two younger brothers, so even when I got old enough to realize it's a game with absolutely no choices, totally determined by the cards, I continued to play it because they liked it. Despite what had to have been a lot of boring afternoons, I have nothing but great memories of the game. I realize now that there have been several iterations of Candyland through the years; the one I remember looked like this:

At some point, they added characters, which is vaguely remember, so perhaps friends had this version:

I went to the store to purchase Candyland for my daughter. I figured it would be pretty much the same thing I remembered. After all, if you're selling a super simple board game for four dollars, why shake things up much? I got the box home and opened it up to find this:

I was pretty speechless. The first thing I noticed was how busy the board is - colors and pictures and patterns all over the place. I wasn't confident my child could even figure out where the path was she was supposed to follow with her little pieces. Then I looked at the characters. Instead of little cartoonish creatures (since, you know, they're supposed to be made out of candy I never really expected them to look like people), they had essentially stylized adults.

It's tough enough to keep my daughter away from the societal pressures towards body image and forcing children to grow up before they actually grow up, it was really just devastating to see Candyland piling on. I mean "sad." I chose that word intentionally. This is typically the kind of thing that would really make me mad. I'd be spouting off to everyone and calling the company and all that. As it is, it's been like eight months and I'm just now getting around to writing about it.

I took the game back to Walmart to return it. I told the customer service lady why. She said, "I know. We get these back all the time." That's sad. It's all sad. It just makes me sad for the whole world.

I guess flashy and sexy is what sells, even if it's just a toy for toddlers, but it's still really sad. Thankfully our neighbors had a Dora version of Candyland with Dora characters (which Eva loves), so we've been able to play it (and we play it a lot).

I know those outside pressures for societal conformity are inevitable. She's headed to preschool in the fall, and I know there's going to be a lot of messages to process. That's a part of life - whether it's sad or not - at the same time, this isn't a solo concern for me. You can google candyland and find a dozen blog posts similar to this one with the same complaints. At some point we have to questions whether these things are selling because people like the images and messages or just because there aren't other options, because we're desensitized to it all.

A couple years back we got turned on to some people trying to do it differently (hint hint - she just had a birthday, but Christmas isn't too far away - hint hint). I'm not sure why there aren't more people speaking up for some sense of balance and responsibility from the people who, like it or not, are forming the next generation. I could definitely go on about this for weeks, so I'll stop there, but it felt like this was something that I needed to get off my chest.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Are We Afraid of Death?

In one sense, the answer seems obvious. Death is unknown. Death is often accompanied by pain (both physical and emotional) and we avoid pain because pain hurts. Those are good points for sure, but I guess I was wondering today why death is "death," in the way it is. Yes, humans and, to some extent, animals have developed feelings of attachment that make us sad when someone dies, but that should be less an issue with the one dying. For humans we recognize the sadness of those we leave behind, but I doubt greatly too many creatures on this planet are wondering how their litter of kittens will feel when they die.

Why is death such a big deal? I tend to think it's because of evolution. The way life seems to have come about in this world is through a long process of reproduction. It really seems a strain of self-survival has been laid within all of life to the very smallest, simplest organisms. Something inside us wants to live on. At the base, natural level we want to reproduce, as much as possible, giving "us" the best chance of surviving to the next generation.

I know there's this traditional Christian belief that death only existed after humans sinned. But that's not even really in scripture. It's not an issue of literal or non-literal reading. It's just not there. That belief emerged through interpretation, to answer some questions that arose around the text. There's some question about whether death was inevitable for Adam and Eve, say, but no real question about the reality of death for everyone else (with a couple key exceptions that are relatively irrelevant to this post).

I've written elsewhere, something that will be part of a larger post (or series of posts) about evolution and theology that is in the works, that it really seems there is a force of selfishness at work in the world - this is the evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce. Selfishness doesn't necessarily means bad, after all, a selfish baby is one that survives, because it makes enough noise to be properly fed and cared for.

If we look at death in its strictest element, without all of the emotional attachments we've laid on it - say from the perspective of a rabbit or a skunk - there isn't necessarily a reason to fear it. You may desire to avoid it the way you'd also avoid falling in a cold lake, but the fear we attach has nothing to do with death itself, only with what death represents. We'd miss out on more chances to reproduce; it would cut into our inborn ability to be selfish or self-sustaining. We're programmed to live as long as we can - which is why death becomes real scary.

Now there is room for altruism, of course. Human beings have evolved to such a point where our brains can step outside themselves, so to speak. We can analyze the natural inclinations we possess and choose to work against them. We can recognize this inborn desire for survival and put it aside, sacrificing ourselves say, for simple pleasures, or in place of one we love. Even so, death is still feared. I suppose we may find a sense of calm in the notion that we've chosen death as opposed to it sneaking up on us from behind, but it's still scary. Even if we push beyond that inclination to survive, we still possess it. It still makes an impact on us.

In the Christian faith there is a belief in resurrection. This notion is simply that death is not final. We die and then later we come back to life. Christians believe in an eternity, where, at some point, everyone will live in perfect harmony with God, each other, and the world around us. It might take a literal eternity to get there, but it is in the future.

If that's true, then death becomes relative benign. We might be afraid of that which accompanies death - emotional and physical pain, loss, etc - but death itself is not to be feared. Death is not the finality of us - perhaps, in fact, we have no finality at all.

I like the notion (and I'd love some input if there are those of you who know others who've posited this notion - I'm starting to wonder if I'm not the first one) that God represents a force opposed to that of selfishness - we can call it love (because that sounds great), but it's really just a selflessness. As the evolutionary process that brought us about came through a move towards selflessness, so the counterbalance that will lead us into eternity comes from a force of selfless love at work in the world. I guess my idea is that both forces have always and will always be at work, but the person of Christ represents the tipping point at which time that selfless love takes the upper hand from selfishness.

I say all this just to say - perhaps our fear of death is really just a lie. Yes, those things which accompany death are scary - we don't like pain, pain works against the notion of selfishness that lives in all of us - but death itself is a fear reaction to potentially losing the future. If there is no way to lose the future - no end to who we are - then death is just not scary.

I pay special attention to the parts of scripture that talk about fear. As near as I can tell, fear and love are completely incompatible. A perfect love drives out all fear (I think a pretty wise dude once said something like that). If we really do have these forces working within us - a selfish drive towards survival and a loving force pushing us to seek the good of others before our own, at some point they come into conflict (probably at a lot of points) and we have to choose between them. If death is on the horizon, it makes some logical sense to choose fear, but I guess what I'm wondering (recognizing that my faith in the future does not equal knowledge of the future) maybe that choice is the wrong one.

I could go on and on (I'd like to at some point), and it some ways this could be viewed as me saying life isn't precious or valuable. On the contrary - this is where that drive towards selfishness comes in handy (I told you it's not necessarily bad) - those things which accompany death make us treat it with utmost care and respect. The very notion we might lose our life leads us to value it. At the same time, perhaps these serious accompaniments have been given too much power. They must be taken seriously, yes - but perhaps not given control in our lives and decisions.

Ultimately, I suppose, we fear death because we recognize that we've not given to this life or gotten from it all we'd like to. I think that fits within this notion of self-preservation very well. We fear death because we doubt what's on the other side. Maybe it's that notion of feat that needs to change. There is a big difference between taking something seriously and being afraid of it. If you encounter a bear in the woods, both the one who ignores it and the one who responds in fear will likely find themselves with less than desirable outcomes. The best chance of survival is putting away the fear and taking the reality of the bear seriously.

There is no flippant response to death, but, just maybe, there also shouldn't rightly be fear either.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Value Spectrum

This post is a day late. My schedule has been terrible lately, which is entirely the fault of my lack of discipline. I'll own it. But the off-kiltered posting has not been the result of that messed up schedule (I can almost always find the time to write). I've just had real trouble finding the right thing to write about. Every couple of weeks I'll get a rash of inspiration and I'll find myself with a half dozen ideas, presented as draft posts on the blog. Then it's pretty easy, I sit down, choose one, and go. Right now, I'm out of pre-ready topics. Well, that's not true. I have two in the hopper, but they're more in depth and require more time than just grabbing the computer in a spare moment. So, this one may feel a bit forced and possibly repetitive. It's a topic I struggle with and one that's close to me heart.

As you may be aware, legislators in my state (Delaware, small wonder) have tried in the last two years to get our death penalty repealed. I know I've written about life and death, especially in the context of revenge, quite often in this space. I'll try not to go too much into that today. But we have, again, it seems, failed to get this thing through. There was far more vocal support this year - even the Governor, "High Highness Sir Wishy Washy" came out in support, making public his intent to sign the bill when it got to him. Last year, it passed the State Senate by one vote and was killed in committee by the House. The House committee once again failed to pass the bill along to the full body - where it has (and has had for quite some time) more than enough support to pass. There is a procedural option, by which the rules can be suspended and the committee process skirted, to bring it to the full house. However, in order to make that motion, the Speaker has to give permission - and he's just flat out refused.

That brings me to the real crux of the issue. The Speaker, and many of our elected leaders, are retired police officers and the police organizations in the state are (at least it seems so) the only real opposition to death penalty repeal. It's not a party issue - many Republicans support repeal because of cost savings or a truly "pro-life" philosophy, and the Speaker in question is a prominent Democrat. It's really come down an issue of assigning value to life.

Many of the law enforcement contingent say they'll vote for the bill if it includes a provision allowing for continued execution of cop killers, a revision the bill's supporters have so far refused to employ. This rubs me the wrong way.

I get that police officers have a dangerous job. I can't imagine what it would be like to sit at home every day and realize a spouse, child, or parents works in a job where injury or death is a real possibility all the time. I don't want to see any police officers injured or killed, but the notion of capital punishment as a deterrent is just not supported in any way but anecdotal. Then again, I also have a strong commitment against violence and coercion, which provides a real tension in dealing with police in the first place.

I don't feel like I have the right standing to be super vocal in this matter. There are plenty of police officers who do oppose the death penalty, for a variety of reasons; they're in a much better position to argue this point. For me, it never seems to be about deterrence; it always seems more an issue of revenge. The notion of "an eye for an eye" makes a lot of sense to us (me too!) as human beings. In the fraternity of police, I get the "they took one of ours, we'll take one of theirs" mentality. I do get it. While I disagree, I think it's certainly a valid argument for keeping capital punishment.

What I don't get is making that distinction just for police officers. Doesn't this keep us going down the road of assigning differing values to the life of different people? We're already talking about a devalued life for criminals. If we're going to kill them, then their life must be worth less than the life they took. Adding in this police exemption seems, to me, to be valuing the life of a police officer above that of ordinary citizens.

As I said, I get the nature of their job is unique. It requires a kind of commitment and bravery most don't possess. In a sense, they have a lot of the qualities we value highly. I just hope we haven't gotten to a place where a person's value is the sum total of their qualities (for good or ill). We do need to maintain the notion than human-ness itself, contains a value far beyond any characteristics or actions that person might have or have done.

It's not the most popular of the anti-death penalty arguments, but the one that rings most true with me is the notion that killing is bad and that executions compound the tragedy of death with more death. I don't believe it's good or healthy - for society or for us individually - to take part in a process like this. But it bothers me even more if we're going to start designating some murder victims as more tragic than others.

If you want to support capital punishment, support it uniformly across the board. We may disagree, but at least it's a coherent argument. Separating life into different categories of value puts us on potentially dangerous ground. Saying, "It's just an unrepentant murderer," is only a few steps away from saying, "it's just a drug addict," "it's just a homeless guy," "it's just a sick, old man." I recognize that "slippery slope" arguments are general reactionistic and ultimately baseless - but that's exactly my point: there is no slippery slope here. There's a cliff.

If we begin to say, "not all life is equally valuable," we've devalued all life. We've made the worthiness of our existence just another competition in the world. I guess that's what evolution tells us about how life came to be and how we got where we are - but where we are is thinking, rational beings. We are not entirely bound by our instincts and drives; we have the ability to work against our natural reactions. We have the ability to choose differently.

I hope we choose to remember, to recognize that all life is valuable, even if the person inhabiting that life doesn't seem to understand that fact. There is no value spectrum. All life is tied together. We either value life or we don't.*

*There's a whole other discussion of how we can value life and still, regrettably, take it in certain situations - an argument that is still important in discussions of societally sanctioned killing. I've talked some about this here (there's more than one post).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Powerlessness of the Resurrection

One of those church phrases we hear a lot - so much, likely, that we don't really register it - is the "power of the resurrection." Now that can be referring to a lot of things; the ability of God to raise Jesus from the dead, for sure, is a type of power. But I wonder how often we translate that notion into one of force and coersion - "A God who can do this can do anything." While we affirm a God who can do anything, we also speak of a God who does things a certain way for a specific reason. When we obsess over the power of God to do anything, we miss out on the context in which God actually works. When we talk about the "power of the resurrection," I wonder if we're not distracting ourselves from the gospel with a Christianized reflection of the world around us.

It's just too easy for us to view the gospel of Jesus Christ through the lens of power politics (a power politics which is the dominant cultural form in our world today). It's easy for us to think of the raising of Christ from the dead as the ultimate power move, a trump card. I'd like to argue the contrary, though. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is really the ultimate act of powerlessness - God hanging helpless, lifeless on a Roman cross. The resurrection, while expressing the ability of God to overcome Rome and empire and force and might is also a direct counter to the very notion of power.

The gospel of Jesus Christ was and is a gospel of love. Jesus announces a kingdom for the powerless, lost, left out, and forgotten, a kingdom ruled by love and open to all, a place of acceptance and forgiveness - a place of sharing and selflessness, without force or coersion. This image is counter to the notion of human achievement, the ideal of self-sufficiency, of scarcity and competition. It's counter to the notion of power.

Which makes the response of those with power, those who embody and represent the power politics of our world, easy to understand. Someone comes at me (threatens me) with a Kingdom of love, peace, and understanding, it's easy to use my big guns and shut it down. "Jesus says blessed are the poor, but we'll just raise taxes. Jesus says turn the other cheek, but we'll hit you a second time." The dynamic of the world was and is a dynamic of power. Crucifixion is the ultimate counter to the Kingdom of God - it's a statement meant to illustrate the falsity of God's Kingdom, to prove that Jesus' gospel is a myth, a dream, a false hope - that he's out of touch with reality.

In resurrection, though, God changes reality - or perhaps more properly, God underlines a reality that has always existed despite the ways we organize ourselves in society. It's easy to see resurrection as a force response to the force response of power in crucifixion. "You kill my messiah, I'll bring him back to life - what are you going to do now?" It's real easy for us to see the resurrection as a power move in the same way those with authority in our world wield power. We tend to forget (or maybe we never really believe in the first place) that a life built of enemy love and turning the other cheek could actually win out against power, force, and violence.

We have to see it differently, though.

The resurrection is not a power move meant to trump Rome's power move of crucifixion. The resurrection is God removing the ultimate power move from the human arsenal. It's essentially putting the Kingdom of God and the empire of this world on equal footing. Jesus says, "Love your enemies." The world responds, "Kill your enemies." So in resurrection God says, "What if death is no longer a threat? How will you get along now?" Behind all force and coersion is the notion that death is final - I will bend you to my will or you will die in the attempt. Resurrection is like going behind the scenes at a magic show and seeing how the illusions are done. "You thought she was floating, but she was lying on a well disguised table the whole time." You thought death was final, but really it's just another bump in the road. There's no real threat there.

Yes, this is very much a theological statement. Death is still scary, especially a painful death as so many Christian martyrs endured. It's also painful for those left behind. It's not as though resurrection removes death from the equation, but it sure weakens the power of force. It makes the statement that power is not the way to win - certainly not when wielded for evil, but also not when wielded for good (if that's even possible). Power is not the way things work out well.

Only love can do that.

Resurrection is the ultimate statement of powerlessness, because it is the ultimate statement of love. Love gives all its power away. Love is putting all the power in the hands of another. In resurrection God does not force a new way onto the world, but simply dulls the weapons of the world Christ is replacing. Violence and coercion are still options, just options wildly weakened for those who see and live into this new reality. In resurrection, God has essentially put love and hate on equal footing - they become true rival options, equal choices for us in our action and interaction.

Sometimes I wonder if that's why we have eternity out ahead of us, if God didn't realize that some people might take a literal forever to come around to the notion of love over hate. Some people long for finality, for some grand gesture that proves which force is ultimately more powerful. But God doesn't work that way. There is no need to prove the value and power of love. The power of love proves itself.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

So, I've not ready any of Rachel Held Evans other books, but I've read a fair amount of writing on her blog, especially when a post resonates with people. I also believe we share some mutual acquaintances and certainly some experiences. This book, about her sojourn in and out of church is both familiar and foreign to me. It's well written and personal (to get the perfunctory specifics of a typical "review" out of the way). It hits home most deeply when she's sharing stories and less so when she's explaining stuff. Fortunately, she keeps each chapter brief and on point. I'm not sure I quite get the organizational structure, but that neither adds nor detracts from the book overall.

Searching for Sunday is and will be popular because I imagine there are points of intersection between her life and the lives of almost every reader. At times I found her experiences difficult to understand; at other times I knew exactly all the emotions present in a situation, whether they were expressed or not.

I can only do justice to this book as a review by inserting myself and my story into it. I grew up among a people who fancy themselves evangelical - although the label was probably not one most "real" evangelicals would apply. The Church of the Nazarene is a Wesleyan people and thus have always had room for incongruity and some bit of rebellious streak. I wrestled with many of the questions she raises here and still do in some sense. I am an ordained minister in my particular tribe and remain involved - but perhaps only because I found wise leaders willing to let me do my non-traditional sojourn with the blessing of the powers that be.

Towards the end of the book, Rachel tackles an interesting question - why she remains connected to evangelicalism when she no longer identifies with the theology and practice of her youth. I imagine the answer is the same one I have for remaining a part of the tribe that raised me. Beyond the core of fundamentalism, beyond the interpretation of scripture, the anti-intellectual leanings, beyond the legalism and the doctrine and the problems, at the core of evangelicalism is the firm belief that God's love changes the world. Not that evangelicals are the only people to believe this, but they are the most fervent representatives of the notion that this belief should be the center of our being.

If I can give any sort of review for Searching for Sunday it is simply this: Rachel Held Evans has written a book for those prodigal evangelicals, both those born into the traditional and those watching from afar, who have deep reservations about what evangelicals do and how they do it, but a deep, abiding, almost co-dependent love of why they do it.

She takes a simple, if meandering, story about her own struggle to find place and purpose in the community of Christ and manages to include all the good and bad of those experiences in a hopeful, life-giving package, that leave the reader neither filled with warm-fuzzies, nor feeling cold and alone. It is a real picture of real people and it somehow feels a bit ideal.

It might be cliche to say a voice like this helps people feel they're not alone. If that is the only thing one gets out of the book, it's probably enough - yet there's also a lot more there if you need it. I'm not sure it spoke to me as much as it might to others who've not stumbled into the same supportive system I have, but it was fun to read and certainly more interesting than most of the stuff that gets the "Christian" label these days.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Rules and Reason

In first century Israel there were a lot of religious rules - especially strict were the Sabbath rules. There were so many things people couldn't do on the Sabbath. One day Jesus and his disciples were walking along a grain field. The disciples began absent-mindedly picking some heads of grain and chewing on them. I'm not sure if they were hungry or if this was a diversion like chewing gum is today. In either case, it violated some Sabbath rule and they were confronted by the religious authorities. In standing up for his guys, Jesus said a seemingly bizarre thing - "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Church people may get what that means, but it's not the most easily decipherable concept. He's pretty much saying that rules exist to help people live better, not to restrict them or make things more difficult. Sometimes the rules make our lives more difficult in the short term, but prove important for our long term ease of life. This wasn't one of those instances. In this case, the rules were incongruous with common sense and reality.

It's easy for some of us to become obsessed with the rules. We get this notion that if something is codified in law or rule, then it's morally impeachable. Yes, there is moral value in following the rules and getting along with one another. This isn't necessarily an anarchist sentiment, but we do have to recognize that context matters. Rules are made for people, not people for rules. No one gets pulled over for going 66 in a 65 - they certainly could - it's a violation of the law - but reality gives us some leeway there, especially if the car is already going slower than the speed of traffic. Rules are made for people, not people for rules.

I was thinking about a real life situation where this comes up and I came up with this:

Let's say there's a midweek day game at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (capacity 40,473) in early May. We're just starting the second inning and Steve is camped out with his three year old son along the third base line. They've got hot dogs half eaten and frosty lemonades in the cupholders. They've also got the section to themselves (attendance for this game is about 4,500). It's a great day until Jim arrives. He stands over Steve and waves his ticket, "I've got Section 119, Row E, seat 2 - you're in my spot." Steve motions around to his kid and their food. "Sorry man, I figured it didn't matter today, can you just sit somewhere else?" "No way. I want my seat." "We've got all our stuff out, it'll be difficult to move everything - there's four empty rows between us and the field, you'll have a great view anywhere." "Sorry. Get out. My ticket says Section 119, Row E, seat 2, and that's where I want to sit."

The exchange catches the attention of an usher who hurries down to ask if she can help. Hearing the situation, she also encourages Jim to pick a different seat. He refuses even more vociferously. Reluctantly the usher sighs and asks Steve and his son to move, helping them with their food and setting them up two rows back.

Obviously the rules are the rules. The guy has a right to sit in the seat he purchased, but common sense and the interests of human decency dictate that the guy just pick a different seat. Rules are made for people, not people for rules. We really need to be sure we're not so committed to getting everything "right" by some objective standard that we miss the real opportunity for human interaction and care. No one is really right in this story, and no one is really wrong. In these moments it becomes an issue of discernment - figuring out what makes the most sense for calm and peace and order to proceed.

(And for those of you following the sports news recently, Tom Brady is Steve, the NFL is Jim, and Ryan Grigson is the guy sitting by himself in the top row of upper deck section 322 complaining that the whole thing's unfair.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Nazarene Higher Ed

So, a number of Nazarene universities have been making headlines lately, not for the best of reasons. This typically brings up a lot of conversation about the purpose of such institutions, college in general, and the philosophy of education. I'm a big fan of the liberal arts. I believe the purpose of education is to form a person. The acquiring of skills and knowledge for a particular field or endeavor is certainly part of the process, but not the focus - at least from my perspective. Much of this opinion comes from my own experience, in which, although I received a stellar technical education in History at Eastern Nazarene College, far more important was the personal formation made possible by those classes and the atmosphere of the institution.

I went to school in New England - that bastion of liberal arts - at the only Nazarene school still a college, and proud of it (New England might be the only part of the country where achieving "university status" is considered a downgrade). Liberal Arts have traditionally been a luxury of the rich, although places like the Nazarene system were founded precisely to bring a liberal arts education to anyone who sought to work hard for it, and it is still a luxury, to be sure.

I get why people don't want to rack up debt for an education. That makes financial sense. Although I do wonder whether those disagreements are simply just a difference in perspective about education (with neither side being "wrong"). Even as someone who's now 12 years removed from college graduation and still paying one final student loan off, I recognize the value of a liberal arts education precisely because I experienced a really wonderful personally formative experience - the experience was worth the time and money, so whether the education was worth it is really irrelevant to me.

We talk about the Nazarene higher ed institutions being much less "Nazarene" than they used to be with some measure of hand-wringing. It used to be, in large part, if you were a Nazarene who went to college, you went to a Nazarene college, probably your regional school. That's just not the case anymore, for a number of reasons. There's a lot of disagreement about how we tackle that issue.

I imagine we've stopped selling the notion of a Christian liberal arts education as a value in itself. There is indeed more risk these days - you used to be able to literally work your way through college, paying as you went. Now, loans are a big deal, even with increased financial aid packages. Loans are certainly manageable if you plan well, but some unexpected trouble and they can be devastating (especially if you don't graduate). I think there's great value in the experience (and the education), but the idea has to be sold. We, as a denomination, aren't doing a great job of it (likely because there are fewer leaders totally sold on the idea themselves, which is, again, not necessarily wrong). But, if we just assume our kids will see the value of attending a Nazarene school on their own, then our Nazarene student numbers will plummet... oh, wait... yeah.

The other aspect of things, though, and this is where the real rub happens (sorry for making you wade through all the rest to get to my real point), is that our institutions are struggling to remain Nazarene, not just in student composition, but in purpose and mission. It's not just a "Christian" liberal arts experience (which is really important), but a specifically Nazarene one (which I, as a very biased observer, believe to be superior in a lot of ways).

A good portion of the scholarship funds at our Nazarene schools come from annual contributions from congregations. The schools depend on those resources desperately. Still, it's been known for a while that our denomination really cannot support all the schools we have in the US, but of course all of them have a history and a constituency and none of them want to close. The only alternative is to compete in the market with other schools. So long as our districts control the trustees (which I'm not against, but I do think accreditation groups will put an end to it in the near future), they're going to be relatively conservative Christian institutions - and to compete in that marketplace, some aspects of Nazarene distinction just have to be downplayed.

We're Wesleyan, and while I don't think you have to be Calvinist to compete in the generic conservative Christian college marketplace, our tendency towards theological progressiveness, creativity, and exploration is not always super convenient. A specifically Nazarene mission of extending the chance at college to kids who might not have done well in high school or come from difficult backgrounds - if we think they can hack it - doesn't look great to the ratings agencies - yet I find it hard to call a school Nazarene that isn't specifically looking to highlight and support the poor and marginalized. Moving to a more academically based selection process might make a school more competitive, but it MIGHT also make it less Nazarene (again, not in student makeup - I don't think that's as important - but in mission and purpose).

These changes have been coming gradually, but consistently as a reality of the space the schools inhabit. There is some real necessity there. To compete in this broader marketplace, schools really need a "corner." You see Point Loma really embracing a social and environmentally conscious identity. ENC is working hard (and succeeding incredibly well) at embracing diversity. For any of the Nazarene higher ed institutions to keep moving they've got to develop these distinctives. One easy option appears to be "generically evangelical," competing with places like Messiah or Liberty or Wheaton (all good schools, mind you), and perhaps inhabiting a space that is less specifically Nazarene.

I believe a lot of these issues we've seen spring up of late fall under the category of searching for this identity, the right identity to thrive in the future. I don't envy those charged with managing these institutions. It's just a really, really difficult job. I'm not writing this to try and make some particular change or any change at all - it's more a (far too lengthy) explanation of why we find ourselves where we do that might, perhaps, help spur further conversation.

Our Nazarene schools have done a lot of great things, investing and training thousands of people to contribute positively to the world. They'll all likely continue to do this, but in the years ahead, challenges will make it difficult for them to be as connected to what it means to be Nazarene (if we know what that means anymore anyway) as they've been in the past. I hope and pray we'll find ways to meet and overcome those challenges.