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A powerful video on sex trafficking

Here’s a powerful video from Unearthed on sex trafficking and exploitation. It tells the story of a man who used to work for a sex trafficking syndicate in South Africa, and the transformation that took place when he responded to the Gospel. Check it out.

http://vimeo.com/31795904

The meaning of life according to Siri.

Whoever programed Siri, the new iPhone personal assistant, has a fabulous sense of humor and the amazing ability to predict what kinds of weird questions people might think to ask their new iPhone. Check out some of the creative responses Siri gave to a whole range of off-the-wall questions.

My personal favorite is this slightly disturbing exchange:

Siri, iphone

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the phone in my pocket having quite that much experience with this kind of thing.

But, even more interesting was this series of exchanges on the meaning of life. I think Siri is someone I could sit down and have a meaningful conversation with.

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Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

Your Guide to Living Life in 10 Fictional Worlds

Wired Magazine has a great infographic on Your Guide to Living Life in in 10 Fictional Worlds. On their list, Catan takes the top spot as a resource rich island with “mountain views and sheep-filled meadows.” And, standing closets to the “Hellish Pit of Despair” end of the spectrum is Sodor, the life-sapping world of Thomas the Train.

I’d have to go with Discworld. What could possibly be more fun than living an Ankh-Morpork?

click to embiggen

Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Will you be my groupy?

I am sad. I don’t have any groupies. Not even one. No one wears my “Marc Cortez” t-shirts, even though the logos are pretty cool. And I still have several boxes of Marc Cortez bobble-head dolls in my office. It’s distressing. (Though I have to admit that the dolls are a tad creepy when they all start nodding in unison.)

I’d even settle for some flunkies. Or, better yet, minions! Just think what I could do with a minion or two.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a few criticisms of how our “celebrity” culture has infected the church. The concern seems to be that “fame” is a virus, or maybe a parasite. And Christian leaders who seem to be pursuing fame are necessarily headed down a fatal path.

You can’t have a humble celebrity.

But is that really the case? What about people like John Stott or Billy Graham? They certainly attained a level of stature that most would associate with being a “celebrity.” At least, no one can deny their fame. And they weathered the storm reasonably well.

Now I’ve heard some argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with being famous but with pursuing fame. If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.

But that doesn’t seem quite right either. If you have a cause worth agitating for, an agenda worth promoting, or a soapbox worth standing on, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your opportunities? And, if this means branding, marketing, and (heaven forbid) networking, shouldn’t you do precisely that? To do otherwise seems irresponsible.

In a fame-driven culture, can fame itself be used as a tool for getting your message out? Or, more accurately, can it be used without destroying the one who uses it?

I wonder at times whether our critique of “celebrities” stems from the fact that we aren’t famous. Resting comfortably in obscurity, it’s easy to throw darts at the famous faces. It may even make us feel better to argue that obscurity is actually a better, holier, and more responsible place to be anyway.

None of this is to dismiss the significant problems and challenges of living in a fame-driven culture. We’ve seen too many celebrity Christians fall to ignore the real dangers. If fame is a tool, it’s a dangerous one.

But so is my lawnmower. And I still use it.

If I had to pick, I’d say that the problem isn’t necessarily with being a celebrity, but with being a groupy. Once you’ve become someone’s groupy, you’re much more likely to follow along with whatever they say/do, often defending them against all criticism, despite how reasonable such criticism might sometimes be. But, is that their fault? Maybe we should stop critiquing celebrity-ism and pay more attention to groupy-ism.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think I want any groupies.

Does anyone want to be my sidekick?

The Best and Worst of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

NPR just released its list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of all time. With more than 5,000 people submitting nominations and 60,000 people voting, it presents an interesting cross-section of what people like in the genre. (Note: You won’t find any young adult books on the list because they’re reserving those for a separate list. So, no Lewis, Pullman, or Rowling. Although, on that note, why is the Sword of Shannara trilogy on the list? How is that more “adult” than the Hunger Games trilogy?)

Since I’m a fan of the genre, I just couldn’t resist making some comments. But, before I do, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list based on literary merit, historical significance, or anthropological insight. People voted. So, it’s a popularity contest. But, it was an interesting one.

So, check out the list for yourself, but here’s what I think:

  • Most Surprising: Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t surprising because the two books in this series so far are bad books. Far from it. The Name of the Wind is unquestionably my favorite debut SciFi novel. What’s surprising here is that Rothfuss has only written two books in the series and the first just came out in 2009. That’s amazing in a list dominated by established authors who published most of their books decades ago! (Runner Up: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Same thing here: an excellent book that I just didn’t expect to see rated this highly by popular vote. Apparently I don’t give people enough credit.)
  • Least Surprising: J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. #1. No surprise. (Runner Up: George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. Best-selling books, popular HBO series, sex, death, destruction, and a midget. What else do you need?)
  • Most Overrated: Frank Herbert, The Dune Chronicles. Lots of people will disagree with me here, but I’ve never been able to get into these books. I’m probably tainted by the fact that I watched David Lynch’s Dune as a child and just didn’t understand. What’s up with the giant worms? I didn’t get it.  (Runner Up: The Princess Bride. (#11!? Seriously? Am I missing something?)
  • Most Underrated: Terry Pratchet, The Discworld Series. Without a doubt, this was the hardest category because so many great books seemed too far down the list. But, in the end, I had to go with the Discworld books. The problem here seems to be that they were listed as individual books (e.g. Small Gods, Going Postal), though others were listed by series (e.g. Lord of the Rings, World of Time). That’s unfortunate because the Discworld books definitely deserved better. (Runner Up: Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy. Too many to pick from here (Neverwhere, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Malazan Book of the Fallen), but Robin Hobb’s books are so creative and engaging, despite the fact that her main characters sometimes border on being unloveable idiots. Great reading.)
  • Best Movie Version: Fellowship of the Ring. I’m a Tolkien fan. What can I say? And I know lots of people like Return of the King better, but Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite.. (Runner Up: Princess Bride. Okay, so it really wasn’t a great movie. But too many fond youth ministry memories make it seem like an Academy Award Winner.)
  • Worst Movie Version: Starship Troopers. This was a tough call since so many bad movies have ruined perfectly good SciFi books. But, Starship Troopers has to be the worst offender. I’m still doing penance for having actually watched that drek. (Runner Up: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From what I hear, Watchmen is a worthy candidate here, but I was warned in advance. So, of the movies I’ve actually seen, this is definitely the second worst.)
  • Movie I Wish Would Get Made: American Gods. No question. That would be too awesome. (Runner Up: The Kingkiller Chronicles. Granted, they’d have to wait until he’s finished writing them. But still….)
  • One I’d Like to Read:  Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. (Runner Up: Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Series. The only Gaiman works I haven’t read yet.)
  • One I Wished I Hadn’t Read: Neil Stephenson, Anathem. Stephenson is probably a genius. But, his books put me to sleep. (Runner Up: J.R.R. Tolkein, Silmarillion. I just don’t need to know that much back story of a novel. Any novel.)

For some other good thoughts, check out Glen Weldon’s NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels: Parsing the Results.

A powerful video on sex trafficking in India

Here’s a well-crafted and powerful video from International Justice Mission on sex trafficking in India through the lens of one woman’s story.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSEF6WlcdRg&feature=player_embedded

Gerry Breshears discusses avoiding burn-out while engaging in social justice issues.

Since many readers of this blog are students of Western Seminary I thought I’d link over to the first “vlog” done with one of our professors. We asked Gerry Breshears how one can avoid burn out while engaging in social justice issues. See his answer here. If you have a comment don’t be shy. Gerry is anticipating some interaction.

Money, Markets, and the Making of Humanity

“Governments should protect the people,” John declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “I’m tired of hearing about Americans struggling to make ends meet. I wish there were enough jobs and money for the whole world, but that’s a pipe dream. The hard reality is that we need a government that will protect Americans and American jobs. That’s what government is for.”

Alex was already shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. That kind of protectionism will destroy us.”

He pointed out the window to the small store across the street. “You see that? That’s a great little business. What if we could create four more? Or ten? Or a hundred? Think about all the jobs that would mean. We need to do more than protect existing jobs, we need to create more jobs. And to do that, we have to be fully and freely involved in the global economy.”

He hesitated briefly and then said, “And, we need to support the banks so we have enough money to invest in these new businesses.”

“No!”

John and Alex both jumped slightly at this outburst from the third person at the table. Visibly agitated, Tom glared at Alex. “You want to give even more power to government and the banks? That’s insane! They’re the ones who got us into this mess to begin with.”

He took a deep breath before continuing, “You’re both missing the point anyway,” he said. “Our problem is that we’re too focused on money and jobs in the first place. It’s not a question of how many jobs we need, but what kind of people we should be. Jobs, governments, banks, all of that is secondary. We need them, of course. But they can distract from the real task of living fully human lives.”

He looked sadly out the window at the bustling city street. “We need to get back to simpler ways: less government, less busyness, more humanity.”

What is government for? What does government have to do with business? And, how does any of this matter for life and ministry today?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been chewing on since attending John Pinheiro‘s paper at Acton University on “The Political Economy of the American Founding.” The point of Dr. Pinheiro’s paper was that economic realities lay at the heart of early American history. And, I was fascinated to see how economic factors drove so much of the story. You really can’t understand the American Revolution, the development of the Constitution, or the factors leading up to the American Civil War, without understanding the economic dynamics at work.

But, as I listened to the lecture, I was struck by how competing views on government and economics are really competing views of human flourishing. That is, they are really arguments about what true human living looks like, what factors are necessary to sustain it, and what role (if any) government has in promoting those factors.

3 Views on Politics, Economics, and Human Flourishing

Consider the fictional conversation above. One one level, it was a discussion of government and economic policy. But, as Tom argued, these should be means to a greater end. So, their perspectives were really just different views of the goal, the means, and the proper relation between them. And, these three views have been with us for a while.

John (John Adams) argued for a form of mercantilism, the dominant economic model of the British Empire. On this view, wealth is a relatively fixed commodity, and everyone (individuals and nations) compete over this finite wealth. So, the role of government is to establish economic policies that will keep as much wealth as possible within the nation to promote the well-being of its own citizens. So, in this model, human flourishing requires wealth, and the government promotes human flourishing by increasing their share of the world’s limited resources.

Alex (Alexander Hamilton) offers a perspective more influenced by Adam Smith, who argued for economic policy based on creating wealth through the astute investment of capital. For Smith, wealth is not finite, but can be increased through economic policy. As in mercantilism, this approach believes that human flourishing requires wealth and that governments should, therefore, work to increase the wealth of its citizens. But, it has a different view of how governments should do this. Rather than establishing protectionistic policies aimed at retaining wealth, this view promotes open policies aimed at creating wealth.

Tom (Thomas Jefferson) represented the approach of the French physiocrats. They were much less concerned with creating or even retaining wealth. Instead, they focused on promoting the kind of living that would produce free and virtuous citizens, their view of human flourishing. And, for many of these thinkers, the best way to do this was through simple, agrarian, productive living. The growth of urban industrialism and wealth-oriented business practices were problems to be countered, not positive developments to be protected or (heaven forbid) increased. So, on this view, human flourishing does not require wealth creation. Instead, human flourishing requires stable, productive living. The role of government, then, is to make whatever policies necessary to facilitate such living, and nothing more.  .

Idealism, Greed, and Human Flourishing

I don’t want to go into which of these is right, or even what it means for an economic system to be ”right.” But, to each of these systems I want to say “yes” and “no.” On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic with Jefferson’s notion of a simple life that focuses more on becoming the right kind of person than on creating and/or protecting the right amount of wealth. Jefferson’s ideal appeals to me: the simple farmer, intimately tied to the land, unencumbered by governments, banks, and big businesses, and growing into human flourishing in small, local communities.  But, at the same time, Jefferson’s ideal seems overly idealized. Most of the “simple farmers” I know work far too hard and rarely know if they’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the season. And, that’s just in America. Move outside this country, and the life of the simple farmer is even more difficult. When you spend all day just trying to get enough food to survive, it’s difficult to find much time for human flourishing. Jefferson’s view of the simple life was probably colored by his experience as a wealthy plantation owner. It’s easy to say that wealth-creation is unnecessary when you already have more than you need. And it’s easy to tell government to get out of the way, when you already have the resources necessary to do what you want.

So, on the other hand, I also appreciate the goal of wealth creation promoted by the other two views. “Wealth” and “greed” are not synonymous. If we define “wealth” as the material goods that promote and sustain human flourishing, then we can see that wealth itself is not the problem, and promoting wealth can be helpful, even necessary, for promoting human flourishing. But, there are problems here as well. First, both of these systems can easily make wealth an end in itself. This isn’t necessary to these systems, but so much attention gets paid to increasing the wealth of a country and its citizens, that the broader questions of human flourishing easily get lost. If asked, I’m sure they would say, “Well, of course all of this wealth is for human flourishing.” But, by sidelining human flourishing and focusing on wealth creation, they’ve made a fundamental mistake that disorients the entire system. And, when that happens, both end up promoting greed. As I said earlier, wealth and greed are not the same. But, a system focused on wealth creation as an end in itself can only encourage greed as the system strives for “more,” either by taking from others (mercantilism) or by creating more (Smith). Either way, separated from a higher goal, wealth-creation lapses into a constant drive for more that can never be satisfied. And, as a result, both tend to promote competition over cooperation. Rather than highlighting human flourishing as the cooperative production of human communities, wealth-creation untethered from a higher goal creates the perfect context for the most destructive forms of economic competition.

All three of these systems, then, have something valuable to say about how government, economics, and human flourishing relate to one another. But, each manifests some limitations as well. And, they’ve been competing for primacy in American identity from the very beginning. There was no “winner” in the debate among the Founding Fathers. Instead, they compromised by including elements of each in our founding documents and policies. So, like me, many Americans have a conflicted, and possibly contradictory, view of these issues.

Two Fundamental Questions

In the end, I found this all to be very helpful in highlighting the need to press beyond discussions of economics and governmental practices to more fundamental questions:

  • What is human flourishing?
  • What factors are necessary to promote and sustain human flourishing?

These are core questions that should interest any human, but especially those of us involved in Christian ministry, because they’re the same questions that we’re asking. Only when we’ve offered our answers to these questions will we be in any position to have meaningful discussions about the best economic and political policies and practices for fostering them.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It's an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

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