Thursday, January 28, 2016

To Pimp A Butterfly

So, a minute into Kendrick Lamar's newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, even with all the impossible hype behind it, I couldn't help but thinking this might just be the best Hip Hop album of all time. That's likely an over-exaggeration, while Lamar hits us with some thoughtful, timely, and applicable rhymes that drive the discourse of rap ahead, his concerns are not really on the same level of those we see in the pioneers. He's critiquing the culture that's arisen around the image of hip-hop which is a positive refocusing on the actual culture that drives the anger and frustration that gave birth to hip hop in the first place. It might be the best hip hop album of this generation, though, and that's something.

On the album Lamar explores the reality of fame - examining how everything we're taught to want only brings with it those things that are most destructive. He uses Lucy (short for Lucifer) to embody temptation (something that's pretty darn biblically literate, another trait you'll find across Lamar's work). The album is not about what to do and not to do, but about the difficulties of navigating a world of pleasure and pain and how the human situation doesn't elementally change with money and fame, even if the particulars are quite different. It's a strong album lyrically and thematically, but you'd expect nothing less of Lamar, who will hopefully force everyone else to up their game (attention Kanye).

The production is incredible and compliments the lyrics with a kind of historic understanding and compositional sophistication you just don't see anywhere else. It does everything The Weeknd album does, but ten times better. It's a different approach, for sure, but Kendrick tackles everything we hope The Weeknd might do, but he actually does it. Difficult and often offensive topics are justified when they're leveraged from reality for reflection and social comment. You might not like to listen to Kendrick's tracks, but if you did, you'd have to give some grudging respect for what he's doing.

One of the best examples of what the album can do is "u" a track that sounds like a typical condemnation of an absent father, but over the course of the track you realized it's an expression of self-doubt, highlighting the humanity and weakness of the rapper as opposed to the typical confident persona the industry drives them to present. Many of the tracks do this kind of switch, addressing real issues in direct ways, but in ways the listener won't expect and forces us to challenge the perceptions we bring and the way we view ourselves, others, and the world.

Now I'm not really a hip-hop guy. I make the statement about "best hip hop album ever" with some tongue in cheek, because, frankly, I'm in no position to know. There's also the matter of everyone's tastes being different. I like hip-hop and if there's any resonance between it and my life it's because of the time I've spent working with teenagers; I don't live the life Lamar writes about, but I've cared for enough people fopr whom this is serious to appreciate the seriousness. What I appreciate most is that Lamar puts together an album that both speaks from and to the society and culture that gave birth to him. It's not just pretty ear candy, but a challenge to be more than someone who listens to pretty ear candy.

It's easy for someone to object to the profanity and course subject matter as inappropriate for public consumption - and on a lot of hip hop albums that's really true; they're self-indulgent and offensive - but To Pimp a Butterfly is doing something with the mess. A track like "Alright" doesn't ignore the realities of the world, but doesn't wallow in them either. It gets a bad reputation for its negative reference to police, but it also calls for hope and perseverance in the same way a gospel classic speaks to another generation. If this album is anything, it's Kendrick Lamar's understanding of and genius re-appropriation of cultural and musical history for a worthy purpose.

There's a tremendously high degree of difficulty with a task like this and, on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar not only meets the challenge, but clears it with room to spare. I don't know if it will win the Best Album Grammy - this is a year with a ton of really great nominees, but it will certainly go down as a classic.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Worlds Colliding

If you come to this space often, you know it's usually my ramblings about theology or pop culture or some conglomeration of the two. These interests make up two third of my topical love triangle. Today, we're going to include the third leg I've largely kept separate: NCAA Division III basketball. It's an odd hobby to be sure, but a good one. Division III athletes play for the love of the game; there are no athletic scholarships. They also usually really smart kids who go on to do interesting and important things in life. It's pure sport without all the commercialization that sometimes makes fandom conflicting.

I'm bringing these elements of my life together for a number of reasons - first, we had a big snowstorm this weekend, my schedule is all thrown off and I needed something for the Tuesday morning post. Second, and maybe more importantly, it seems like a good venue to out myself as a Top 25 Poll voter. A few people know I've been voting in the men's poll for a couple years, but that secret seems harder and harder to keep and there's really no reason to do so any longer.

You see, this Tuesday coincides with the first poll of the year in which I feel entirely comfortable. That's not to say I've taken previous weeks lightly. I generally spend 3-4 hours each week on my ballot, not including the games I try to catch on internet broadcasts throughout the week. It's just that, especially this topsy-turvy year - there's been a lot of guesswork. I admire Dave McHugh's bravery for making his ballot public each week (and I'll try to do it more often in the future), but I'd have a hard time explaining that sometimes, despite my best efforts, there isn't always a logical reason for choosing teams in various positions.

This week, though, it feels right to at least explain my reasoning. I've been hesitant to make myself public as a voter because I'm also a columnist and I didn't want the players and coaches I speak with to be influenced by that status. I've come to realize, though, that this really isn't likely. They've all got more important things to worry about - like winning games.

First, a couple notes about my philosophy on voting. Record matters to me. I do take into account who teams beat and who they lost to, and I'll make considerations for certain circumstances (injuries, context, etc), but generally there has to be real extenuating circumstances for me to ignore record, either good or bad. I tend to discount (but not ignore) the first game of the year, big rivalry games, and those warm-weather holiday tournaments over Christmas. I also pay attention to how teams are winning games and I try my best to watch every team play. That last one is near impossible, even with the great internet streams that exist today, but I do sometimes rely on the eye-test, when I just can't, in good conscience, ignore it.

Without further ado, my Men's Top 25 Ballot for Week 7 (games through 1/24/2016):

1. Augustana - They were my preseason pick and they remain the strongest team in the country. Returning the whole team from their national runner-up campaign, their only loss was by two points in overtime, on the road, to one of the best teams in the nation, playing at it's absolute peak. They have a consistently challenging schedule and they went on the road. It's a safe pick, yes, but certainly earned.

2. Benedictine - I seriously considered them for #1, as I have the past three or four weeks. This is a strong team that has yet to lose. They went 5-0 against the CCIW, one of the best conferences in the country and they've been winning games quite handily. They also haven't been afraid to go on the road. This is more of a 1a designation than a #2. If and when Augie loses again, they'll be my #1 vote, assuming they remain undefeated.

3. Whitworth - I've been a Whitworth fan for a long time, usually giving them a higher ranking than the overall poll. I had them preseason #2. I've also gotten to see them quite often (what can I say, I'm a night owl) and while it's a strong, formidable team, I see enough weaknesses to give me pause. The undefeated record gets them this high, because it deserves respect, but I'd like to see them shore up their on-court consistency before tournament time.

4. John Carroll - Again, an undefeated team with a strong schedule. I moved them up this week because they've now run through the first half of their conference without blemish, and it's a tough conference. The style of play lends itself to slip-ups from time to time, but they aren't showing that same head-scratching anomalies we've seen on the results page in previous years. Besides, they haven't lost yet.

5. St. Thomas - I got to see the Tommies in person at the Hoopsville Classic in November. I was very impressed by their leadership, discipline and depth. This is a team that could very well be #1. I think they may be a little better than JCU, but it's close enough that I let the record break the tie.

6. Elmhurst - I was one of the voters naming Elmhurst #1 the last couple weeks, largely on the strength of the Augustana win. This is a very good team, but we're now starting to see some inconsistency break out. North Central is a good squad (as you'll see below), but losing by that margin (18) means a drop in the polls.

7. Susquehanna - I have not seen this team in person, but I have watched them online. It is my region, so there may be some bias creeping in, but they've got a strong schedule, even if there aren't any huge names on it. The eye test plays a little role here, but with only one loss (t to a Drew team that is better than its record) it makes sense to have them here.

8. Alma - This is certainly my biggest reach. I don't like putting a four loss team this high and in doing so I'm overlooking weak performances in the first two games of the season, but none of those four losses is truly bad and they've got wins over three Top 25 teams and two others getting votes, not to mention beating the three best opponents in their conference in one week, two of those games on the road. I'm willing to make this gamble.

9. Ohio Wesleyan - This is a one loss team who handily defeated the four loss squad above them. I know, I know, I'm breaking my first rule. This team might be among the most talented in the country and, early, they were playing like it. The conference grind, however, is wearing them down a bit and with questions about their depth, it makes sense to use caution. Also, this schedule that looked so dominant at first, turns out to be less so. This is a team I like a lot, which might mean I'm overcompensating for bias, but #9 is still pretty good and they'll have plenty of chances to prove themselves on the floor before season's end.

10. Chicago - I may have been thrown off of this team early because of Dave's unabashed love for them over the last two seasons, but they've won me over with play on the floor. No losses since November and they've survived a couple UAA road trips already. The talent is apparent and the results are proof.

11. Hope - I, like many others, liked how they looked early, but those wins in Wisconsin seems less impressive now and I'm less likely to give them a break for inconsistent play in the middle of the season. Their best win at this point might be Trine and they've lost two games.

12. Marietta - I was not sold on this team. I'm not sure I'm sold yet, but they only have two losses and the schedule isn't weak. Without the loss to St. Vincent, I'd have them above Hope.

13. Christopher Newport - I was very high in this team early, but with a weak ODAC and the struggles of Scranton, the only team to beat them, the schedule is much less impressive than it initially appeared. I'm going to see them in person in a couple weeks, maybe that will change my mind, but right now they're not beating teams the way I'd want a top 10 team to be doing it.

14. Johnson & Wales - I liked this team a lot last year; I was looking for an excuse to vote them in at #25 towards the end of the season and I just couldn't justify it. This year they're beating teams handily and showing real senior leadership. They will likely end the season with both a 2000 and a 1500 point scorers on the roster. They'd be undefeated without a 2500 mile road loss in the opener and they're beating their weak schedule the way you'd expect a contending team to do it.

15. North Central - Here's my other stretch. This team has five losses, but four of them are to higher ranked team and the fifth was a three point November road loss to a team now receiving votes. They've beaten a number of mid-level teams and really put the smack down on Elmhurst this week. There's a lot of weakness in this squad, but there also aren't a lot of teams with super strong resumes to be here.

16. Lancaster Bible - I hate to put an unknown team from a terrible conference this far up, but they're undefeated and they deserve it. Like Johnson & Wales they're beating up an even worse conference handily. They also beat F&M by 30. I don't consider Franklin & Marshall to be a Top 25 squad, but they're close - they also play a balanced style that specifically precludes getting blown out. That win was really impressive. Barely squeaking by Cairn over the holidays scares me, but they deserve to be mentioned among the best in the country. Hopefully they'll get a chance to prove their worth in the tournament this year.

17. Amherst - The Lord Jeffs brought back their whole roster, but I wasn't super impressed with it last year. They played a pretty weak schedule out of conference and have now lost three times without any sort of signature performance. They might even be higher than they should be on the list strictly from name recognition.

18. WPI - This team is talented and plays good defense, but they've shown remarkable inconsistency this year, a hallmark you don't often see in a Bartley squad. The non-conference season was really good, but they seem to be struggling of late.

19. St. Norbert - I've never liked how highly this team has been ranked over its recent run. Yes, they're good and they're winning games, but I've always felt them a little overrated. This year's schedule is pretty strong and they just destroyed a Carroll squad that was getting votes. 14-2 is 14-2 and it's not like they haven't had recent success. The MWC is bad this year, but the Green Knights are doing as much as can be expected of them.

20. Roanoke - At one point this season I turned in a ballot without an ODAC, WIAC, or NJAC team on it, which is pretty amazing given the quality of those conferences in most years. Roanoke is the only team from those conferences on my ballot this time around, largely because of the record. Virginia Wesleyan in their best win, and it's not that great a win this year, still the team is strong and playing well in a conference that is always deep, even if it's down at the top this year.

21. Plattsburgh State - One of these SUNYAC teams had to get in and Plattsburgh is the best of the bunch right now. I'm not sure it's a Top 25 team, but when you compare them to the teams below them, the losses are a little easier to stomach.

22. Salisbury - I saw Salisbury in person in November; I saw them again in January. The November team was Top 12 worthy, the January team is, well, here. They're struggling to play well, I think partially because they have too many guys who deserve minutes. The talent is there, but the performance is lacking of late.

23. Penn State-Behrend - Yep, it's a good team in a bad conference with no real statement wins. Still, they've got a history of doing well and those UAA wins (over Case and Carnegie Mellon) are good enough for me to let them in. At some point, winning is all you can do and they avenged their one loss to LaRoche this week, on the road, with gusto.

24. Gettysburg - Here's the one pick I definitely got wrong. I felt like one of the three-loss Centennial teams deserved to get in. F&M is clearly more talented, but I saw them in person last week and they just weren't playing up to par. If the Swarthmore-Gettysburg matchup hadn't been postponed by the snow, I would've known Swarthmore was the better choice, but I had to go with my gut and it was wrong. This is a good team, but probably not yet Top 25 worthy.

25. Whitman - I considered fifteen teams for this slot, all of them worthy, but none of them super impressive. Whitman came out on top because they seem to have the fewest negatives, but obviously I could be wrong here as well.

I don't mind questions or comments as we go along and I would be happy to give my impression of any team so you'd know where I stand. I'm out now, so I suppose those questions and criticism will be coming more often. I welcome any positive and open conversation.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tay-Tay vs Tesfaye

Michael Jackson rocketed to solo fame with his debut album, Off the Wall. He transitioned from a cute child singer to more adult material, mixed in his own personal influences for the first time and made music people genuinely loved. Following that record, he put out the most popular album of all time, Thriller, and never looked back. There really will never be another Michael Jackson - the music industry has changed, concert tickets are more important than album sales, people stream, and tastes are diversified enough that there's less fame to go around.

At the same time, in 2015 we've got two albums, two artists, who's best comparison is, in fact, the King of Pop. Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, produced a record you could imagine Michael Jackson stepping into off the street, a real heir to the kind of R&B influenced pop that MJ created. You've also got the mighty Taylor Swift, who's the true inheritor of Jackson's legacy of world domination.

I don't know that I'm ready to put 1989 in the same category as Thriller, but I also don't know how influenced I am by legacy and time. I was born in 1981; Thriller was already mythic by the time I heard the first note. Michael Jackson had created this larger than life persona - he was the Beatles all over again (even though his actual output and quality really can't hold a candle to them). Swift is intentionally working against legend stereotypes. She puts in great effort to be accessible, even as she's completely closed off. She just doesn't give off the same vibe.

But she can sell out stadiums around the world. She could tour non-stop and keep selling tickets. She's one of the only acts who can still pull off big tours. 1989 is well written and she's at the heart of it. Yes, there are producers and co-writers who've refined the pop sound, but MJ had Q and he didn't even write half the songs on Thriller. What's more, Swift has become the kind of cultural force worthy of Jackson's legacy. Ryan Adams' cover of her entire album gives her enough critical cred to get grudging acknowledgement from the "too cool for pop" crowd, and she's really, really good at what she does. Like MJ, she's managed every aspect of her career perfectly - the details are different, but the trajectory is the same.

Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has a favorite Taylor Swift song (mine is "Style"); the same is true with Michael Jackson ("Billie Jean"). They're both just so a part of the social fabric that we can't get away. When you pair that with actual, real talent, plus charisma, you get a unique superstar. You just do.

We're hesitant to enjoy this comparison, though, because the music is so different. Taylor is not giving us something new, she's merely perfecting the girl with guitar sound and rounding it out for a larger pop audience. To hear MJ's musical inheritor, we have to hop over to The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness. He's making the same music moves Jackson made with his solo career - he's bringing R&B to pop in new ways. He's using the same Swedish producers to make the sound run, but he's also got a rabid determination to fulfill a singular vision.

I love the story about Disclosure, who are essentially just producers, getting locked out of production for The Weeknd track on their new album. It speaks well for his artistic purity, as does his insistence of keeping the same lyrical content, even if that content - largely a collection of hedonistic nihilism - will keep him from MJ-level success, but he's going to be seen as one of the first to make the kind of incremental pop music transition.

A lot of the songs on the album are just well-produced blah. It's interesting, though, that his singles, "Can't Feel My Face" and "In the Night," take the lyrical content and add to it some measure of reflection that causes us to perceive the drugs and sex and lifestyle the lyrics represent in profound and complicated ways. They're are exactly the opposite of the rest of the album. This bodes well for the future, not so much the present. In the end, though, Beauty Behind the Madness is a production album - it's far more about what's being done in the control room than it is on songwriting or performance. People like the album and they like what it represents, but with the competition for Best Album this year, it doesn't stand any real chance.

There's no doubt Taylor Swift is the favorite to pick up her second (and first deserved) Album of the Year award, but the competition is indeed stiff... more to come.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trump the Messiah

So, it's been a bit of a creative lull coming out of the holidays. You may have noticed I didn't post anything last Thursday. There was no motivation. Sorry. We are getting into Grammy and Oscar season, so there will be a little more pop culture and a little less pseudo-intellectual rambling, if that's your thing.

I originally titled this post (way back in November, when I envisioned it) Messianism and the Messianc, which, I'm sure, would have gotten a TON of clicks. I don't like being super topical in the titles - as much as the click bait is attractive, I kind of like to be honest instead of a salesman. At the same time, when do you get a blithering politician's name that also doubles as an actual word than makes sense for the pseudo-intellectual argument of the day? You have to use the topical double-meaning, right?

Trump's the obvious candidate for an example (far more obvious than he was in November, when this was all just a side show). I wanted to talk about Messianism - the "arrival" of a savior. This can be anything - communism, some new computer technology or energy breakthrough, an election - anything that bills itself (or allows itself to be billed) as the solution to a previously intractable problem. Pretty much every politician runs a campaign this way, but none more thoroughly than The Donald.

I'm not going to talk about the politics in particular (although there's an interesting piece here about it), but the manner in which he engages them. Unlike anyone before, Trump litterally touts himself, personally, as the answer to the world's problems. He doesn't have policy papers or complicated proposals, he is simply selling himself as the answer. There's really no better way to define messianism.

Yes, a lot of people see through Donald Trump, but the archetype remains true. We tend to impose this perspective on whoever we happen to want to vote for. A lot of the fervor in 2008 was simply believing that the mere act of electing Barack Obama President would save the world. The Nobel committee gave him a peace prize just for winning an election! I think we all got a little carried away because we spent an entire generation voting for Presidents whilst holding our noses. The notion that some candidate might excite some people was a little unusual.

We see messianism on a smaller scale all the time. TIME did a big piece earlier this year on nuclear fusion, which, if realized, "promises" an end to energy wars and climate change. Skeptics will always be skeptics - and I tend to be a skeptic - but they're not always wrong, especially when the claims are so immense.

We want the quick fix, the easy solution. It's why so many people play Powerball, despite the odds of winning a solo jackpot going down the more people who play. I also noticed that everyone seems to know right away, with some specificity, what they'd do if they won a billion dollars, even if they firmly believe the lottery is a waste of time and would, honestly, never buy a ticket. We're waiting for the windfall.

Whether a political candidate, a discovery, or a pile of cashing dropping from the sky - we're all in on messianism: the promise of a solution.

Peter Rollins would say that the very notion of a messiah is the real problem. He'd argue that whatever energy we put into hoping and expecting the solution to drop from the sky, perhaps in the form of a thick-lipped, jowly dude with strange hair, would better be used actually living and working for the good of those around you.

I'd call this, perhaps, the difference between messianism and the messianic. If, as Christians claim, Jesus Christ is the actual messiah, the savior of the world, this whole notion gets put into perspective. He dropped into a world poised for a messiah, rife with messianism - they even had groups of people who moved into the desert to bide their time waiting for an immanent salvation. Yet when Christ came, it wasn't a get-rich-quick scheme, it was a long slog through tough times; it was a call to suffering and service and patience.

The messianic isn't a sharp guy in a sharp suit. It's the nitty gritty of dirty reality. Salvation doesn't come at the end of a miracle; the real miracle is that we don't need one. Jesus Christ was not the first messiah to come along in ancient Israel. They moved in pretty regular cycles the way we see today. Whether it was the Roman Emperor himself, who certainly talked the talk of messianism, or the various angry prophets who wandered out of the wilderness to rile up the natives against their captors, the world has been and continues to be, filled with potential messiahs.

The real message of Christ, though, was to trump the messiahs. He came without a push for power, in fact to the powerless. He came without a call to heroic action, in fact to the very unglamorous world of selfless service. His message was not "Follow me to freedom," the way William Wallace said it - it was "follow me to freedom" as we escape this cycle of messianism, of waiting for the solution from somewhere else and in some unknown way. The call to salvation is the call to live, simply, with care and concern for everyone - even your enemies.

Trump isn't really the problem. In fact, in many ways, the other candidates like having someone like him running (although they don't like him winning). They like it because he becomes the scapegoat. They can say Trump is the problem, when they're really promising the same thing (if only in saner terms): elect me and save the world. I have the answers. I know what's up. All politics is a call to messianism. It's the kind of thing directly opposed by the messianic way of Christ.

As we enter this season, I'll probably write and talk more about the election. I find it fascinating theater, but this is one major reason why I don't vote for President. The messianism is too strong and too tempting. We don't have to play this game - putting one person in charge and praying for a miracle. The very notion that our patriotic duty is to pick a candidate and vote works against the messianic. Not that democracy and voting are automatically wrong - as Churchill said, it's the best of all the terrible options we've come up with so far - but the notion that this is the only choice, the only way, the necessary framing narrative of human life, is a bit dangerous.

Elections push us towards messianism - even if we're pretty sure the guy we elect isn't messiah, it shapes our outlook on the world in such a way that we expect to see a messiah on the horizon. That's a dangerous thing, because we're supposed to see our salvation in the midst of the poor, the prisoner, the enemy, the outcast. Our true salvation comes not in seeking a savior, but in following the example of the savior who didn't much fit the title.

It's nothing supernatural. It's simply love for those people who get it least and love for those people who give it least. In other words, it's pretty much the opposite of Trump and all the other wannabe messiahs out there this year.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wheaton College, the Nazarenes, and the New Reformation

I'm generally a realist about most things. I try not to get too caught up in idealism, because we live in a real world where ideals rarely play themselves out cleanly. At the same time, I try to recognize that ideals are important and do my best to live up to them. I try to give ideals the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. I'm loyal.

Despite all that, I may have reached a tipping point with this whole Wheaton College thing.* It's not so much the theology of the matter, although that bugs me, but because the theology seems to be more an excuse for institutional preservation than it is a legitimate theological argument.

We've seen this all over the place within evangelicalism in recent years - calls for theological purity that are far more about power and control than they are about genuine intellectual and theological inquiry. Beyond even theology, my own denomination, The Church of the Nazarene, has seen incident after incident where institutional cohesion, control, and continuity have trumped the basic tenets we claim to believe. It's undermined the authority of the institution and caused the exact divisive harm it was intended to prevent.

I've tried to be a big believer in the ideal of Christian community - that despite our messed up tendencies we can and should be together. I'm not rejecting that notion, either practically or theologically, but I feel like I've now abandoned the notion that our historic or traditional institutions have any real place in the future of Christianity.

The institutional church in America - at least the evangelical variety - is eating itself alive.** At the same time, I'm pretty certain any group of people must, in some measure, be institutionalized to remain cohesive in any way - not that it has to be done, but that it will inevitably happen. There will always be institutions when people try to live together - from communes to corporations, overt or unintentional, we all institutionalize, even the most radical revolutionaries. We're going to have (and need) institutions, but I'm no longer convinced those institutions we have are capable of being the institutions we need moving forward.

More and more I'm realizing that perhaps talk of a "new reformation" is not so far fetched.

You have the argument from history. As (the late, great) Phylis Tickle so eloquently laid out, every 500 years or so there are massive changes in both the form and institutionalization of Christianity. We went from a movement of loosely connected local cells, to an empire-influencing centralized body, to an almost brazenly political force, to a relatively disconnected conglomeration of competing denominations. None of these system looked much at all like the last. For years people have been foretelling a similar change (it is about time, after all) - I've resisted those calls, but my resistance is waning.

On a small scale, I can see in my own denomination the real dysfunction and purposeless that continues to radiate from the center. At the same time I witness a real vibrancy of mission by those on periphery.*** There is a hunger for living out the Christian life in creative, faithful ways among people that just can't be supported by the old structures of the institution. The two forces seem increasingly divergent - one pushing to fit new developments into an old structure and one marching forward with intention, ready to build whatever structure makes sense as we go along.

Our idealism as Christians tells us we should be able to reconcile these forces. I'm just not sure that's really possible anymore, especially as sustaining the institution becomes more and more important to those in charge. I get the tension there - being in charge specifically means care for the institution, but what I'm beginning to realize is that perhaps, in this rare and unique instance, caring for the institution might just mean tearing it down and working to rebuild something different.

I have a lot of fear in that statement. There's a lot of grief and sorrow. I imagine it's similar to the sorrow of Martin Luther, who saw much of his beloved catholic church deconstructed by the movement he started - not that he regretted speaking out and sparking a reformation, but that he felt genuine grief over the loss of something beloved and familiar. It's a difficult position to be in; I don't envy any institutional leader.

At the same time, those leaders must be willing to make difficult decisions, even if they're unpopular within the institution itself. That is sort of the point of leadership, right? To recognize when context is changing and lead people to change with it. Mission and ministry in the coming years will not be served by the structures and systems of the past. This isn't just a generational shift, I'm starting to think it's something bigger.

At the end of the last reformation, the catholic church was broken - broken to such an extent it's taken 500 years to begin to recover its footing. The idealist in me celebrates the re-emergence of catholic leadership in the world because it speaks of the real perseverance of the saints. Even if missteps are taken in dealing with a new reality, there is hope for the future. It's what keeps me optimistic about the old systems and structures I love, but often bristle against. The core goodness within them is real, even if it's not expressed in appropriate ways for a changing context.

Evangelicalism is facing a whole host of pressures from various forces and perspectives. It's not really about one thing. It's not just about theology, but also the place of religion in society. It's not just biblical interpretation, but how human society itself is evolving over time. It's not just about what science means for core beliefs, but how those new realities impact the way our very institutions are ordered and designed. It's not an easy picture.

I guess, in the end, I'd call on all of us - those who cling to institutions for security and safety and those who push boundaries almost by nature, and even those in the middle, like me, who see the real value of both - to maintain a vision of Christ. We do claim to be Christians after all, and even if we can't agree on theology or practice or organization, perhaps we can agree on the need for continued communication, charitable discourse amongst ourselves as we move forward with whatever comes next.

I really struggle with some of these incidents, like the one at Wheaton, the one before it at Northwest Nazarene, and many others - not because they're emblematic of some larger issue, but because they're precisely the opposite - they're distractions from more important conversations. They're side-skirmishes in a larger struggle to engage the changing global context with the grace and peace and love of Jesus Christ.

I'm loyal, probably to a fault. I love my denomination and my evangelical identity - even when evidence suggests I resemble those things less and less every day. I don't want to see us descend into the literally wars of religion that marked the adjustment period following the last reformation, I'd like to see us moving forward together, even as we're a bit wary of each other and what lies ahead.

So I guess we could say, there's still a little bit of idealism left in me, and I hope, with good reason.

*If you want further information about this issue, you can see both the professor's statement and the statement from Wheaton.

**The mainline version has pretty much marginalized itself over the past 60 years in a different, but no less effective way.

***I wrote a little bit about how that functions psychologically in a post a few weeks back.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Minimum Wage and Responsibility

You may have noticed the memes out there lately, the ones showing McDonald's new automated ordering system and claiming it's somehow a response to rising minimum wages around the country. It bothers me a little. I'm not bothered by arguments about economics - those discussions are important - it bothers me when anyone from any position intentionally manipulates reality to bolster their point. It just seems dishonest and, frankly, an admission that their point isn't all that strong to begin with.

In this particular case, though, where we're talking about minimum wage and poor workers, there's a larger issue at play in the discussion. There're a couple underlying assumptions in that meme that trouble me. The first is that society has no responsibility for quality of life. If we're committed to providing people with the basics in life, it makes sense, at least to me, to provide them with a living wage, so they can afford basic necessities. We're paying for them either way, if we really believe we have a responsibility to each other (and guess what, I do).

The second assumption, though, is more pressing to me - and it's really a secondary assumption, something underlies our entire economic framework. It's simply that people are worth what their skills and abilities are worth on the open market. A surgeon might say, "I'm worth half a million dollars, because that's how much people are willing to pay me." I get the economic argument about your work being worth what someone will pay, but we are not our work. At the same time, we cannot be entirely separated from our work. Work is essential to life - as much as food and shelter and basic health care - we need it to be truly human. We can't reduce people to their work, but neither can we separate them from it.

This is the whole principle of taxation, right? People who's work is worth a lot sacrifice some of that wealth to support people whose work isn't worth as much.* If it were a pure math game, we wouldn't need taxes - that's the ultimate social darwinian experiment - but everybody needs something basic. There is a floor on what people need to survive as human beings and we, as a society, have the responsibility to provide it. So when someone argues for $15 an hour for McDonalds employees, the argument is not that their work is somehow "worth" $15/hr, but that the workers themselves are worth that much.

The number can be debated and changed and there's myriad other ways to construct a society that cares for itself well - it's not really about minimum wage. I'm more concerned that we're thinking about the underlying assumptions behind even a simple meme that we throw around.

Yes, we should automate the McDonalds, because it's efficient and it makes sense. Life would be easier for everyone involved. Locally here, Wawa has been doing this for years - and has some of the best employee relations in the industry. It's not an either/or kind of thing. At the same time, we should also support a living wage, so people can enjoy the basic human right of work and also be able to live a balanced life. We should care about the quality of education our lowest performing students receive, because these are the kids most likely to rely on societal support later in life. We should have a broad view of our economic and social responsibility to each other and stop trying to find the easiest way to salve our consciences.

The absolute worst that can happen is we end up with a society so remarkably efficient that there isn't enough economically productive work to go around. That could be a disaster if we're operating on the mindset of individuality - but if we're really committed to responsible society, it might just leave room for people to explore art and invention, science and sport - things that are valuable on a human scale, but lag behind on the purely economic spectrum.

Humans are economic beings, but we are not purely economic beings. We're more than just what someone will pay us and we have to work hard to remember that and to live differently in a society that often, either implicitly or explicitly, says different.

*Now there are broader political arguments about whether our current society really wants people to work and I do believe we are pretty terrible at matching people with fulfilling work. It's extremely inefficient, but that's a different argument and such discussion here misses the point.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Ranchers and Riots

After a nice holiday break and some oversleeping this morning, we're back to the regular Tuesday morning post.

Over the holidays there's been a lot of talk about the ranchers in Oregon occupying a vacant federal building as a protest. This is an ongoing saga now 22 years old. The federal government owns a good chunk of land west of the Rockies - more than 80% of Nevada, half of Oregon, and lots in other western states as well. When taking over the rugged territory the government thought it best to keep land back to avoid speculation. That's been fine for most people, since the gov't rents land to miners and ranchers at a deep discount (upwards of 90% less than market rates).

However, as the government (and humanity in general) has become more aware of the effect cattle have on their environment, some of those leases have been revoked to protect endangered species and habitat. In 1993, the federal gov't removed Cliven Bundy's right to graze in certain parts of Nevada his family had leases for generations, to protect the habitat of an endangered desert tortoise. Bundy, being a shrewd observer of government practice, just kept doing it, ignoring warnings and fines, knowing that the Bureau of Land Management was pretty low in the totem pole of enforcement priorities.

The main argument is simply that possession is 9/10ths of the law - Bundy and his fellow local ranchers don't believe the federal gov't has right to own land or determine how it's used when there have been generations of locals using it. This particular protest is over arson convictions for a couple of ranchers who started fires on federal land as a means of clearing invasive crops for their cows. It's all about land rights and usage - things that certainly are debatable in a system of democratic capitalism.

There's been lots of talk about how we treat a group like this - armed and threatening violence if the government interferes. There have been comparisons to ISIS and urban race riots. The group is currently called a militia, as opposed to a terrorist group or a mob. In some way, each of those terms has appropriateness and I'm sure those discussions will be ongoing. In fact, I'm simply proud that our society seems, on its own, to be asking such questions in the mainstream, a conversation I don't think would've taken place 15 or 20 years ago. We're learning how to think and talk with each other on a public level, and that's good.

What struck my interest, though, was how this highly visible story intersects with another, less visible story from Mississippi, where a city councilman, angry about police presence and violence in his neighborhood made admittedly unwise comments about the locals using "rocks, bricks, and bottles" to confront police from others jurisdictions who chase low-level suspects into their area.

As you know, I don't condone violence of any kind, so I oppose the threats made by people in both circumstances. Those are wrong, even, as I suspect, if they're made out of frustration and exhaustion. The Bundy boys have been dealing with this conflict their entire lives. Councilman Stokes has seen armed police from three towns over chasing shoplifting suspects through his streets. Those are not ideal, regardless of whether you think they're valid concerns. It's enough to try some patience.

What strikes me as interesting are the processes we go through to justify potential violence.

At the heart of gun debates in the US is the notion that, at some point, a government might potentially rise up to oppress its citizenry, thus requiring armed response. This is the justification the NRA gives for opposing gun bans of any kind. Yes, the arguments start with self-defense, but they general end with revolution. American colonists in the 1770's used the hunting rifles and army issues above their mantles to ward off the King's troops and secure a new nation. That tradition continues.

Some people are terrified a government will attempt to seize dictatorial control in the same way. People will argue about the likelihood of such an event (in history, when a government does take such control it doesn't come from forcibly oppressing the citizenry, it comes from co-opting the majority and usually happens with little to no violence), but it brings to bear the way we view violence in regards to power.

The ranchers believe that the government is abusing its authority, it is essentially an oppressive occupying force violating the rights of ranchers. By the patriot code, this is something to be opposed, violently, if necessary. Many people in the US see things this way because it's been part of our public education - this is the American story. Whether we think this particular issue is worth fighting over might be debatable, but we're prone to understanding why it's happening.

When it comes to Mississippi, we're less prone to give sympathy - because that very same narrative which praises citizen self-defense, tells us the police are good people, who catch criminals and protect the "good guys." The whole ongoing debate about police brutality and militarization, the one that questions policing tactics and the disparity of treatment by race rubs against our natural instincts because it pushes back on the narrative we've been taught.

In reality, the position that calls for violent response to police is no different than what the ranchers in Oregon are doing. Many urban citizens, especially in oft-neglected neighborhoods, view the police as an oppressive occupying force, one endangering the lives and livelihood of themselves and their loved ones.

Much of our response to these issues depends on our perspective. We identify and understand one scenario, we see ourselves potentially within it and make them heroes of liberty and justice, while vilifying the other because it seems foreign and dangerous to us. Really, though, it's the same thing.

Perhaps what we need to confess is that our own perspectives are shaped by an overly simplistic narrative. Of course not all cops are evil, power-mad people. That's silly, but neither are they the bastions of peace and civility our narrative makes them out to be. The reality is messy. It's not 1774 anymore. We don't have a mad king across the ocean with an army at his disposal. The whole point of a democracy is that lots of checks and balances and protections exist by which people of differing opinions can work out their differences in peaceful means. Does the system work perfectly? Of course not. We like to quote Churchill in saying democracy is the worst form of government besides all the others as a means of justifying out system; we should quote it as a means of countering our historic narrative of justice and liberty. Real life is messy.

This is part of the reason I condemn all violence. In the end it is only a fear reaction and a means of control. There might be "right" and "wrong" in a given agreement, but they're rarely, if ever, delineated by the line between two sides. Life is messy and so is disagreement. We can only properly address real and genuine conflict, like those presented in Oregon and Mississippi by asking "in what ways could 'they' be right, and in what ways might 'we' be wrong?" We've also got to be aware of what forces and narratives have shaped us, exploring why we make assumptions and how our opinions have been formed.

As a Christian, I tend to cross uncomfortable boundaries - at least I try to make it my habit to identify with the 'other.' When someone seems like the villain, I work to put myself in their shoes. I think those ranchers are pretty deluded - in both their understanding of history and their perspective on reality. They've had a pretty good deal for generations and it's getting more difficult. That stinks. They have to realize change is coming and it will be painful. At the same time, the government has to be sure to err on the side of compassion. Perhaps the ranchers are indeed intractable. Perhaps the government really has reached out with opportunities to help them transition to a different model of life and business and they've just refused to cooperate - at the same time, I think we all know the government doesn't have a great track record with this. We need to make sure even the most unstable, gun-toting rancher feels safe enough to trust that someone else has their future in mind. That's how conflicts are resolved.

When it comes to policing - there is a lot of personal responsibility that's gone by the wayside in urban areas. That's caused problems. At the same time, we, as a larger society, have to recognize the part we've played in creating the conditions that exist in pockets of poverty throughout our nation. Many of these communities lack the resources and abilities to change culture on a dime. It took generations for poverty to take hold of these communities and it will take generations to resolve (not to mention sacrifice). At the same time, we have to recognize that our government response has been jail over justice, intimidation over assistance and we've been complicit in this because it doesn't affect our daily lives. As in Oregon, it is our responsibility to make sure even the most unstable, gun-toting urbanite feels safe enough to trust that someone has their future in mind.

We don't encounter the front lines of violence and justice in our society because our reaction has been, largely, to just keep them at a sage distance. So long as the majority of us don't have to deal with questions of violence on a daily basis, we're happy to let whatever happens happen. We talk about violence in unlikely esoteric events - what to do if an armed intruder enters your home or a terrorist shows up at work. We have plans for a band of jackbooted thugs going door to door taking guns, but we give very little thought to the real conflicts happening on the periphery of our world - whether it be rural ranches or the urban core.

We can't know if the stories we teach our children about how the world works really pan out in reality if we're not involved enough to witness them first hand. I have to reconcile the reality that 95% of cops I've met off-duty and responsible and rational, while 95% of the cops I've met on duty are the opposite. Those are two competing American narratives, narratives that often divide us into camps of absolute believers who yell and scream across a chasm at each other.

We're not going to solve anything by vilifying and threatening each other in a desperate attempt to convince ourselves we're right. That's the real challenge - not that our narrative needs defending from others, but that it needs defending in our own minds. We tend to scream and yell the loudest when we're trying to silence our own doubts, when the holes in our narratives are unceremoniously exposed. Instead of doubling down, perhaps we should acknowledge that our emperor, sometimes, has no clothes. The only other alternative is violence - maybe not today or tomorrow, but surely down the road. And despite our most favored and comfortable narratives, violence has never, ever solved anything long term.