Friday Link Love

Away we go!

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“I am in a state of shock” — Flannery O’Connor

A lit class in 1961 tries to understand “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” They, um, miss the mark. O’Connor responds in part:

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

H/t Keith.

On a different note but still related to the power of story:

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The Bible Is Not a Diet Plan — Religion Dispatches

On Rick Warren’s “Daniel Plan” for fitness, which he cribs from the pages of an apocalyptic text:

I can’t begrudge anyone whatever motivation they need to live a healthier life, and Warren deserves respect for using some of his enormous cultural capital to fight obesity—especially now that biblical values are suddenly synonymous with consuming fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. But I am in awe at the superhuman degree of willful blindness it must take to read a profound story of conquest and resistance, of identity and assimilation, and discover, at the bottom of it all… a diet plan!

A story, sacred or secular, is a test of our empathy: an invitation to enter into the trials and hopes of a stranger. And it takes a remarkable self-centeredness to deliberately reject that invitation, to mine that story for anything that helps us grow our portfolios or shrink our waistlines, and throw away the husk of the human at its heart once we’ve sucked out all we can use. We can read selfishly just as we can act selfishly.

A big AMEN to that.

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A Mother Tries to Atone for a Deadly Hate Crime — NPR

At 40, Julie Sanders is a mother of three from Portland, Ore. But when she was 16, Sanders belonged to a white supremacist group — and one night in 1988, she witnessed a murder. Since then, she’s kept the event a secret from most of her friends and family.

She has broken the cycle and raised thoughtful and courageous children—one of them is defending a cross-dresser in his high school who’s being hassled—but it doesn’t feel like enough:

“But, I just still feel like not a good person,” she says. “And I don’t forgive myself.”

Sanders recently completed a degree in social work. She plans to work with kids who are at risk of joining hate groups.

How “much” atonement is enough? Is it even fruitful to think that way?

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Half Drag — Leland Bobbe

These are closeup portraits of drag queens with half of the face made up and half au naturel. Says the artist: ‘My intention with Half-Drag is to capture both the male and the alter-ego female side of these subjects in one image.’

What is feminine? Masculine? Beautiful? Where does authenticity originate and how does it find expression? These are some of the questions that come to mind as I look at these.

Not to mention that the images are amazing. The makeup itself is artistry.

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Offline: How’s It Going — Paul Miller

I featured Paul’s year-long no internet experiment a while back and here’s an update:

The first two weeks were a zen-like blur. I’ve never felt so calm and happy in my life. Never. And then I started actually getting stuff done. I bought copies of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Aeschylus. I was writing at an amazing pace. For the first time ever I seemed to be outpacing my editors.

Without the internet, everything seemed new to me. Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred. Every conversation was face to face or a phone call, and filled with a hundred fresh nuances. The air smelled better. My sentences seemed less convoluted. I lost a bit of weight.

Three months later, I don’t miss the internet at all. It doesn’t factor into my daily life. I don’t say to myself, “ugh, I wish I could just use the internet to do that.” It’s more like it doesn’t exist for me. I still say “ugh, I have to do that” — it’s just not the internet’s fault.

But now that not having internet is no longer new, just normal, the zen calm is gone. I don’t wake with the sunrise while chirping birds pull back the covers. I still have a job. I feel pressure and stress and frustration. I get lonely and bored. My articles aren’t always submitted on time. Sometimes my sentences aren’t good.

I’m just stock Paul Miller. No more Not-Using-The-Internet custom skin; I’m just myself. And it’s not all sunshine and epiphanies.

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The Veil of Opulence — NYT

This is a long but clear excursus on how we decide what’s fair and what’s not as a society, for the purposes of, say, designing a tax policy. It’s hard to figure out where to excerpt, so read the whole thing, but here’s the crux: the veil of ignorance (a traditional way of evaluating what’s fair) has been replaced in many quarters by a “veil of opulence.” Chopping mercilessly at the article:

The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others. What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others. We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own. Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application. Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions. What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.

Nowadays, the veil of ignorance is challenged by a powerful but ancient contender: the veil of opulence. While no serious political philosopher actually defends such a device — the term is my own — the veil of opulence runs thick in our political discourse. Where the veil of ignorance offers a test for fairness from an impersonal, universal point of view — “What system would I want if I had no idea who I was going to be, or what talents and resources I was going to have?” — the veil of opulence offers a test for fairness from the first-person, partial point of view: “What system would I want if I were so-and-so?” These two doctrines of fairness — the universal view and the first-person view — are both compelling in their own way, but only one of them offers moral clarity impartial enough to guide our policy decisions.

Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions…

…The veil of opulence assumes that the playing field is level, that all gains are fairly gotten, that there is no cosmic adversity. In doing so, it is partial to the fortunate — for fortune here is entirely earned or deserved. The veil of ignorance, on the other hand, introduces the possibility that one might fall on hard luck or that one is not born into luck. It never once closes out the possibility that that same person might take steps to overcome that bad luck. In this respect, it is not partial to the fortunate but impartial to all. Some will win by merit, some will win by lottery. Others will lose by laziness, while still others will lose because the world has thrown them some unfathomably awful disease or some catastrophically terrible car accident. It is an illusion of prosperity to believe that each of us deserves everything we get.

Interesting example in the NFL draft.

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One final link: I preached some time ago about Dan Savage and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage sitting at table together. Here is the video of that debate. I haven’t watched any of it yet and caveat emptor because Dan is famously salty in his speech. (Though I should also warn about Brian Brown, since many people find his perspective much more offensive than an errant F-bomb.)

Anyway, I link, you decide.

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Friday Link Love

Trumpet Fanfare and Away We Go!

40 of the Most Powerful Photos Ever Taken — Buzzfeed

A big hit on Facebook this week:

Christians protect Muslims during prayer in the midst of the uprisings in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.

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The Gospel of Stephen King — CNN

Who knew?

“People tend to think that Stephen King is anti-religious because he is a horror writer, but that’s completely mistaken,” says Zahl, a retired Episcopal priest who has written about King’s religious sensibility for Christianity Today magazine. “Several of his books are parables of grace in action.”

There is an actual body of literature devoted to King’s religious sensibility. Several pastors and authors say King displays a sophisticated grasp of theology in his books, and his stories are stuffed with biblical references and story lines taken straight from the Bible.

“If God brought lawsuits, Stephen King would face a charge of plagiarism,” says J.M. Rawbone, an English horror novelist who has written an essay about the Christian themes in “The Stand.”

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Time Flows Uphill for Remote Papua New Guinea Tribe — New Scientist

I adore this kind of stuff:

Núñez and his colleagues noticed that the tribespeople made spontaneous gestures when speaking about the past, present and future. They filmed and analysed the gestures and found that for the Yupno the past is always downhill, in the direction of the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, is towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua.

This was true regardless of the direction they were facing. For instance, if they were facing downhill when talking about the future, a person would gesture backwards up the slope. But when they turned around to face uphill, they pointed forwards.

The future is heavenward. That’ll preach.

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Modern Faith: Paying Paul His Due — The Daily

In “Paul Among the People,” Sarah Ruden, a classical translator and scholar, uses ancient sources to look at Paul as he would have been seen in his own time and context. She finds him to be neither the scourge of homosexuality nor the rigid puritan that today’s social right and left have seen in him. By the standards of his day, Paul was a progressive social reformer.

Oh no she DI-INT!!!!

“Rather than repressing women, slaves or homosexuals, he made — for his time — progressive rules for the inclusion of all of them in the Christian community,” writes Ruden. Ironically, the passages where Paul often seems most intolerant to modern readers are precisely the ones where he was trying hardest to reduce the appalling brutality of the Roman world he knew.

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All Men Can’t Jump — Slate

Subtitle–Why nearly every sport except long-distance running is fundamentally absurd:

Hear me out, sports fans—I’m a basketball nut myself, and so the joke is as much on me as anyone. To see where I’m coming from, you can’t do better than examining basketball’s most physically talented player, Michael Jordan. He was hailed as nearly repealing the law of gravity, and during his prime he made rival players look as if they were moving in slow motion. But Air Jordan wasn’t in the same league as a house cat when it comes to leaping. Consider how casually young cats can jump up onto refrigerators. To match that, a man would have to do a standing jump right over the backboard. And a top-notch Frisbee dog corkscrewing through the air eight feet up to snag a whizzing disc makes Jordan look decidedly human when it comes to the fantastic quickness, agility, strength, and ballistic precision various animals are endowed with.

There’s no denying it—our kind started substituting brains for brawn long ago, and it shows: We can’t begin to compete with animals when it comes to the raw ingredients of athletic prowess. Yet being the absurdly self-enthralled species we are, we crowd into arenas and stadiums to marvel at our pathetic physical abilities as if they were something special. But there is one exception to our general paltriness: We’re the right honorable kings and queens of the planet when it comes to long-distance running.

As a fledgling runner, this was an entertaining read. I used the M word in public for the first time this week, and a friend responded, “If God had intended for us to run that far…” Turns out… God did.

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And finally, Electionate.com

Any political junkies out there? This site is destined to be the 538 of the 2012 election. Mark my words.

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Peace be with you.

Friday Link Love

Here we go:

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See-Through Church – Belgium

I ran across this on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, who said, “that’s one way to get more transparency in the church.” Visually arresting; see the link for more photos:

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Applying Sentiment Analysis to the Bible – OpenBible

An interesting image and idea, and something one could sit and study for quite some time… although I notice that the resurrection is listed as a negative event. Yeah, I guess Mark could be read that way…


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The Roots of Religion – Big Questions Online

Myth, story, practice…

 I have found that the very mention of the words “religion” and “evolution” sets off a kind of reflex reaction among some, but fortunately not all, contemporary Americans. Among both religious fundamentalists and what might be called atheistic fundamentalists these terms set off a war to the death, with abusive language directed toward the supposed opposition. In that kind of atmosphere any rational discussion becomes impossible. What unites these two groups is the idea that religion and science are essentially the same thing:  sets of propositional truths that can be judged in terms of argument and evidence.

What surprised me when I began to read the work of leading scientists in the fields of cosmology and evolution is how many of them rejected this idea and argued instead that science and religion are really two different spheres that may at points overlap but that operate in accordance with different logics. Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof. Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its “proof” is the kind of person the religious way of life produces.

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Dying and Dinner Parties – Vimeo

Linked from the Improvised Life blog, this is a delightfully matter-of-fact take on the last adventure of life.

Dying and Dinner Parties from ThinPlace Pictures on Vimeo.

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An Interview with David Eagleman – BoingBoing

David and I were at Rice University at the same time, though I did not know him there. He’s made the rounds on some of my favorite podcasts, including Radiolab, and his book Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is really interesting. In this interview he tackles near-death experiences, déjà vu and more. When asked what advice he’d have for young aspiring scientists and thinkers, he says:

Watch TED talks: smart people will distill their life’s work down to 20 minutes for you. Follow links through infinite trajectories of Wikipedia. Watch educational videos on topics that resonate with you.

There are a million ways to waste time on the net; reject those in favor of ways that teach you exactly what you want to know. Never before have we enjoyed such an opportunity for tailored, individualized education.

And be sure to get off-line often, to take digital sabbaths. As much as the net provides a platter of mankind’s learning, there is a different kind of learning to be had from a hike in the woods, the climbing of a tree, an afternoon building a dam in a stream.

Amen!

Design Your Own Preacher Camp

I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself.)

We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our fourth year to meet, and here’s how it works:

We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently 15 people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 30 weeks of preaching. From time to time we think about adding members, but haven’t figured out how to do so without cutting into evening free time, something we are not willing to do.

People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.

2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.

3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. This year we’re uploading our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due by Saturday morning before we leave, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.

6. Schedule for the week: We do 40 minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and this year we even have a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.

So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism: Book Review

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

This book was chosen by our book group at church, and I went to it kicking and screaming. Keller is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, which broke off from our denomination over the ordination of women. I don’t pay them much attention most of the time, and I certainly don’t seek them out on matters of theology. Whether that’s close-mindedness or good discernment on my part, I’ll leave that to others to judge. Bottom line, though, is I’m glad I read this book, but I’m also glad I could get it from the library rather than buy it…

The first half of the book addresses the questions and charges people make against Christianity (the evil done in its name, how can a good God allow suffering), and the second half makes a more positive case for the Christian faith. I actually liked the first part of the book better. For one thing, it’s somewhat less systematic, less interested in building a logical argument so much as addressing (and in some cases dismantling) the traditional arguments against God and faith.

I would have been happy for him to stop there. That’s a temperament thing—I was reminded of spiritual types recently and I am more on the apophatic side. Apophatic spirituality is centered on the mystery of God that goes way beyond whatever we think we know. Apophatic spirituality approaches God by saying what God is not, and tends to be suspicious of attempts to nail things down too handily. Christianity is largely “kataphatic,” centered on the idea that God is revealed and known in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense, apophatics provide a necessary corrective and a reminder that we don’t know everything, never will, and that’s probably a good thing.  (More on this topic)

It could also be that apophatic Christians are Buddhists who just can’t quit Jesus.

Back to the book.

I appreciated the places where Keller was able to bring some nuance. He deftly weaves literary and historical material into his discussion and quotes heavily from C.S. Lewis. (These were some of my favorite bits in the book; clearly I need to read more Lewis.) I agree with his assessment of the church’s role in systems of injustice. To the extent that it participates and colludes with them, it is an affront to the gospel. But the answer, Keller, is not to throw the whole thing away but to go deeper into a life with Christ. In fact, Christianity has within it rather robust tools for critiquing and correcting religiously-based injustice and oppression, including its own. (I’m not claiming that Christianity is unique in that regard, though Keller might be.)

His chapter on biblical interpretation was strong, and I liked how he handled the facile argument that if you can’t take the Bible literally everywhere, you can’t take it literally anywhere. You have to consider the genre and intent of a passage. Genesis 1, for example, is not a scientific text: “Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a ‘song’ about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation… it is false logic to argue that if one part of the Scripture can’t be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn’t true of any human communication.

I take this to mean that one might say “I love you” to one’s spouse upon leaving for work, and five minutes later say, “Ugh! I’m gonna kill that guy!” to the bozo who cut her off on the freeway, and the latter should not be taken literally, nor does it preclude the former from being taken literally. But did you catch that? He just called the Bible “human communication”! Not even this prominent PCA pastor is willing to say that the Bible is God’s dictated word, jot and tittle, and for that I am thankful. In fact, some of his principles for interpretation seemed to come right out of Jack Rogers’s books for the Presbyterian Church (USA) on biblical interpretation. Maybe these guys are mellowing out.

Ultimately, however, I wish Keller had stuck more to  theology than apologetics, which unfortunately is his emphasis. Can we “logic” our way to God? Maybe, but I hope not. Yes, the bodily resurrection of Jesus would have been a complete scandal to people at the time, an offense even to pre-modern sensibilities, and totally outside the realm of what they would have consider possible at the time. He’s right; to make up such a thing would not have lent credibility to those following the way of Jesus. That does not mean that it happened… though that’s essentially Keller’s argument.

He also employs a number of circular arguments and dualistic, all-or-nothing thinking. For example, quoting Plantinga, “a [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort… and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness.” On the contrary, I think there can be broad moral consensus of good and evil in secular societies. (He would say that this consensus originates within religion, specifically Christianity. That’s Christianity as Godfather: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”)

He also tries to defend God on the matter of suffering:

Though none of these people are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything. With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?

I guess it could be possible, but… no. Just no. Here’s the apophatic talking: there is no benefit to trying to nail that stuff down and systematize it. It is a mystery. Maybe it will all make sense in the sweet by and by, but if you’re trying to build a bridge for the non-religious, it does not benefit your case by even going there.

I would be interested in hearing a non-religious person’s take on this book. My sense is that it provides lots of food for thought for Christians, and maybe even folks who lean Christian. (I expect very vigorous discussion of this book in our group.) But is not going to do much to sway folks who are resolutely non-Christian.