Saturday, December 27, 2008

McAvoy: 1. Satan: 0

How much does the natural order of our world conspire to keep people from reading the Bible?

You might answer, "Not at all." Certainly, nothing in physics would give any reason to believe such a thing. But years of experience show me otherwise.

Take last Friday, for instance. I was on my way from Jersey to Philly to meet a friend for lunch. It poured rain, and while traffic moved fine on the other side of Rt. 70, I could have probably covered more distance swimming than driving. Short a swimsuit, I inched along, frustrated at my growing tardiness.

Then, I had an idea.

As I said, it's my belief that forces within us and without us strive to keep us from reading the Bible (or praying). But I had my Bible right with me. And what better thing to do in traffic than to, as they say, get in the Word?

So I got my Bible out. I opened to Luke. I balanced it on my steering wheel. I started reading aloud.

Six verses in, the previously unmovable traffic parted like the Red Sea, and I was on my way to hand drawn noodles!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent Conspiracy

I don't have the words to express how beautiful this video and its vision are to me:



Yes, please.

Thanks to jaeyde for showing this to me.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Friend in Dialogue is a Friend Indeed

Handsomer men would be hard to find.

Jonathan and I both like to think. We also like to talk. We also have amazing chemistry. We also properly spell, capitalize, and punctuate text messages. Put it all together, add some intangibles, and you get some really great exchanges. Let me offer a sample:
Me: Wow, blogging about evolution is really exhilarating for me. I'm not sure why, but I hope it doesn't spill into giving the issue more centrality than it merits.

Jon: Yeah, I hear you. I think it's a little too emotionally charged in some circles.

Me: Yes, people perhaps equate fighting for Jesus with fighting against Darwin.

Jon: Not to mention the personal dimension. For me I mean. And I think it contributes to anti intellectualism among Christians.

Me: YES. I HATE anti-intellectualism among Christians. It is one of our big failures communally.

Jon: It's definitely an area where we play into the narrative of the world.

...

Jon: Yeah. One thing that's been hard for me since high school is not being the scientist in the room.

Me: Guess you will have to fit in a few physics classes [in grad school]. At least audit.

Jon: I don't know. While I like being a poly math, I definitely believe in division of labor. I want to be thinking econ 16 hours a day.

Me: Hah, that's your econ speaking. Try some science and you'll change your tune. That's funny because I love the idea of a "renaissance thinker."

Jon: So do I, but in today's world very often a renaissance thinker is a shallow thinker. It's just not possible to know everything that deeply.

Me: But is the integral of knowledge the same? Can one assign relative worth to breadth vs depth? Is there a place for each? Ephesians 3:18

Jon: You have to go deep to reach the frontiers of knowledge. Although sometimes ideas from other fields have applications in your field, you need depth in your own field to recognize that opportunity.

Me: In other words, take a 17 c.u. major as well as one or two courses in seven varied sectors?

Jon: Well, an undergraduate degree rarely takes you to the frontiers of knowledge. But yes, the principle is there.

Me: I do think in modern academia there is an idolatry that says new knowledge = progress, and that does not necessarily follow. Let's synthesize what we know.
What a friend!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why I am Not an Evolutionist #1

Or, "Charles Darwin Lied."* Part one of an at-least-three-part series.

Calvin has a hairier face than most.

First, a disclaimer: while I have a modest background in science, that science is not biology, and I am by no means an expert in these matters.

(1) There are a whole host of aspects to life that, while wonderfully aesthetic, imply no obvious reproductive advantage. One can still attempt to explain them through the framework of natural selection and random mutation, and indeed many do attempt so, but these attempts often strike me as strained, and are circular themselves inasmuch they seek to offer evidence for evolution.

A few examples:
  • Forgive me for allowing most of the details to escape me, but I remember reading several years ago about a prize awarded to a man for thinking of an explanation for why people aren't nearly as hairy as other apes.

    His prize-worthy idea? Perhaps mothers preferred babies who were less hairy and were thus more likely to care for them.

    That's it.

    My problem with this reasoning is that it could be used to justify any trait unique to humans. Who knows what would be possible if our great-grandmothers had different tastes! Perhaps we would all be able to sing "Do your ears hang low?" with much more gusto. Perhaps Chewbacca would exist in reality and not in myth.

  • The peacock's tail is a prime example of what is called "sexual selection:" the trait makes the peacock no more fit physically, indeed less so, but nevertheless makes him more fit in the evolutionary sense because peahens are impressed by peacocks with more impressive tails. The tails are said to signal fitness, perhaps because the man is able to survive despite the handicap.

    The logic strikes me as just a bit twisted. He proves he has good genes by surviving despite having bad genes (which give him a functionally useless display of feathers).

    (And why should peahens prefer mates with more impressive tails to begin with? Would this trait itself not have to evolve?)

    Another challenge is presented by the knowledge that it seems peahen mate selection is rather independent of peacock tail impressiveness. For the evolutionary argument to hold up in light of this knowledge, peahen preference toward impressive tails must have evolved some time ago, then evolved away again after the men had gone through all the effort of evolving their tails. Women are so hard to please.

    Consider, for a moment, an alternative explanation: Peacock tails are beautiful, and this fact has something to do with their origin.**

  • As a final example, consider breasts in women, a topic upon which my male readers should have no trouble focusing. Believe it or not, their presence presents a significant challenge to evolutionary theorists.

    The story is similar to the puzzle of why we aren't so hairy. Put simply, most female mammals develop breasts only after giving birth, and their breasts remain only while nursing. Only in human women do they develop first and for always at adolescence, then further around the time of birth. Breasts in other mammals are decidedly unattractive to males, since they signal that the female is not in much of a state to bear young.

    Why should this be so? There are evolutionary ideas. Perhaps breasts evolved so that babies would have an easier time nursing. I think it was Stephen Jay Gould who posited that they developed so men would have an easier time getting used to mating face-to-face (which raises the question of why people evolved the propensity to mate face-to-face). Evidently, our great-grandfathers much preferred their wives' posteriors to their faces. Men are so insensitive.

    But these ideas are just speculation. In short, there is no good reason why this trait ought to evolve, from a Darwinian perspective. One can posit, "There must have been a good reason, because this trait clearly evolved!" But that is circular reasoning and placing faith in Nothing.

    And so I say, only one third in jest, is it not evident that breasts are a great gift from God to men, women, and babies alike?
    "I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment..." (Ezekiel 16:7a).

In short, the world is full of incredible beauty, and this beauty is very difficult to explain with a framework that only rewards survival, like a society of Van Goghs which cares nothing for its artists.

Rather, it is evident to me that many things are beautiful because they were made with beauty in mind.**

*Not especially true, as there is a world of difference between lying and simply being mistaken. But it goes well with another recent post of mine.

**This, of course, requires that beauty exists in an intrinsic, objective sense.***

***This, of course, requires that there exist someone with the authority to set such a standard. You can see where I'm going...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Response: Morning again in America

My friend Matthew left a thoughtful post about the "joyful shock" felt at President-elect Obama's victory, and the tough-luck reactions of many conservatives.

Well, I'm pretty conservative. I voted for Senator McCain.

Nevertheless, after a few minutes' disappointment* in getting used to the result, I found plenty of bright side about which I could be happy. I was so glad for all of my neighbors who woke me with their celebrating, and for my student with the proud Obama button the next morning, and for the millions of others like them. And a Barack Obama sand sculpture in India can't help but bring a smile.

I was also so very proud of my country and its election process and peaceful transition of power. I keep picturing the tea that George and Laura Bush will have with Barack and Michelle Obama on January 20th.

And I was proud to hold up our new President-elect to my many disappointed students, and to urge that they respect him and pray for him.

All of that said, I'm mildly to moderately concerned about what President-elect Obama and his Congress will do. I think Matthew is right in saying the joy behind the celebration, and much of the reason Obama was elected to begin with, has a lot more to do with an ideal than it does an ideology. But the two are a package deal.

For instance, I think it would be a monstrosity if the Freedom of Choice Act passed. I furthermore don't want to see the nation enact protectionist economic policies that I think would hurt our global friends and us in the long run. I believe that, while our healthcare system needs major reforming, doing anything like socializing it would make things worse. And there are a whole slew of other issues with which I don't really trust the solutions offered by our President-elect and his Democratic colleagues.

All of that said, I'm willing to give him a shot. Indeed, in the spirit of his campaign, I hope to be a more active contributor to my democracy, voicing my concerns along the way. I think those who are particularly misguided are those who hope that Obama fails and fails big now that he's going to be President.

He's my President now, too.

*Interestingly enough, I voted for Kerry in '04 and was quite bummed out by the prospect of a united Republican government. Four years can bring a lot of change, all right.
**On conservatives who quip that America is finished now that it has elected Obama and his Congress, I don't take them too seriously. It's just the mirror image of those who four years ago threatened to move to Canada.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Foul Ball!

If Connie Mack never heard of it, I don't want to hear about it.

Lee Huang pointed me to an op-ed in the New York Times coauthored by unlikely colleagues Billy Beane, Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry. They advocate the creation of a federal institute for "evidence-based" medicine, as opposed to what they call the "experience-based" approach that most of our care is based on now. Basically, that means introducing a lot of hard statistical analysis into practice.

That may well be a fantastic idea,* but I reject the analogy with which they drive their argument: sabermetrics.**

As their story goes, sabermetrics is transforming baseball, propelling to success teams like the Oakland A's of earlier this decade and the Tampa Bay Rays of today. Furthermore, dinosaurs clinging to the old ways, like the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox, are sitting at home.

I dispute every step of this narrative. Yes, the A's had a good run from 2000 to 2003, but they never even made it to the World Series. And where are they today? They've finished ten games under .500 the past two seasons.

And the Rays? It's true they're in the World Series with baseball's second lowest payroll. But they haven't done so predominantly by getting hidden gems for a steal off of the trade market. Rather, finishing in last place every year continually presented them with favorable positions in the draft. This standing definitely required deft choices in said drafts, which many other teams failed to do, but they certainly had a leg up by being awful year after year.

In short, if the A's' success earlier in the decade and the Rays' success this year is evidence in favor of sabermetrics, why aren't these teams' failures since and before evidence against it?

Now, how about the "dinosaurs" (my word, not theirs). The article implies that the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, et. al have gotten where they are by following the "old ways." Quite the opposite. My understanding is that the strategy of building a team out of the most expensive free agents year after year is a relatively new one, pioneered by the Yankees in the 90's.

Again, it's true the hazards of such a strategy have been made manifest, in no team more clearly than the Mets. The result is a team full of players past their prime who all want to be stars - in short, a whole equal to less than the sum of its parts. But these hazards are by no means the result of following tradition and intuition.

If you want to look at a truly traditional approach to baseball, look no farther than Charlie Manuel and Pat Gillick, the Phillies' manager and general manager, respectfully. They have 135 years between them. Charlie's following of his gut frustrated Philly fans for years until they realized our team was winning. And Gillick has done the same miracle work here as he did in the early 90's with the (cursed) Toronto Blue Jays and later on with the Seattle Mariners.

And we're about to win the World Series.

So, I cry foul on Beane, Gingrich, and Kerry. They spun a story about baseball to make an analogy with healthcare seem pleasing, when in fact it is a false one. Not surprising, coming from politicians, but not true.

Now, the fact that the analogy is a false one may be irrelevant. But to the extent that it rings true, I would be very cautious about undervaluing a doctor's intuition.

*It probably says something about me that I was far more incensed about the baseball aspect of this article than the healthcare aspect. Sorry, Health and Societies friends.
**Sabermetrics refers to the statistical approach taken by the Oakland A's (under Beane) late in the 90's. They evaluate players using a lot of new-fangled statistics in addition to traditional indicators like batting average, ERA, and intuition.
*** Though unrelated to baseball, I find hard to swallow their statement that the United States has worse health quality than most industrialized nations. There's no question we need to do a lot better, but my (flawed) understanding is that if you're insured here (a big if, I know), you're a whole lot better off than in most other places.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Two Wrongs May Not Make a Right, But Three Rights Make a Left!

Just going to get some wiper blades.
Map and directions courtesy Google Maps.


Distance as the crow flies: 1.1 miles
Distance if New Jersey employed normal left turns: 1.6 miles
Actual road distance: 3.0 miles

I still don't understand. It's not like they don't have room for a left turning lane. They just choose to have a grass median instead.

Oh, Jersey.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Charles Darrow Lied

My school sent me today to a seminar on classroom management in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The seminar was interesting and useful, but the most lasting impression was made upon me by
a lunchtime stroll down the boardwalk.

Atlantic City, if you didn't know, is the inspiration for the game Monopoly, hence my taking a walk on the boardwalk and passing things like St. James's Place. The atmosphere of the city exudes that same kind of promise - fortune and thus happiness are only a few rolls of the dice away.

The boardwalk promises its own romance. Start with a clear autumn day on the warm side of brisk. Add the splendor of the Atlantic Ocean and the associated salty air. Provide a walkway from which to take it all in, add in quaint shops selling inexpensive and nostalgic American food, and you've got a recipe for sepia-toned enjoyment.

The lords over this enterprise are the casinos, who with straight, even grinning faces ignore the obvious fact that the system is rigged against you. No one seems to notice.

I found a few other things on my stroll. New Jersey, unlike Nevada, stops short of legalizing prostitution in addition to gambling. So instead of being solicited by women in front of brothels, I was solicited by women in front of massage parlors. It seems to be human nature to buy all varieties of sensual pleasure where one sort is already available.

Fortune tellers abound as well, offering such ridiculous methods as phrenology. One modestly proclaimed, "Specializing in solving all problems. Health, financial, and love."

Mixed in without explanation is the New Jersey Korean War memorial. The only people I saw there were Korean. It was cool.

Benches on the boardwalk have not one but two arm rails between the outer two, creating three distinct seats, and eliminating any possibility of being used as a bed. The memory of one homeless man sitting on one makes me think of what happens in Monopoly when you land on that last hotel property whose rent you can't afford.

On my way back I attempted to enjoy some of the aforementioned nostalgic American food, two hot dogs and some french fries, out on the boardwalk. I was foiled by belligerent seagulls, clustering and squawking more and more around me. I got up right as one lunged at my fries. Later another one smacked me in the head with its wing. I couldn't help but think of how birds in Scripture represent the powers of Satan, as when Abram drove them away in Genesis 15:11.

One contrast surpassed all of these in the disgust it brought me. At the start and at the end of my walk I passed a beggar woman. She stood and sang, completely tone deaf, beating for percussion on a plastic bucket that looked like a sand castle toy. Most street performers are musically gifted, and her complete lack of talent heightened the sense of desperation she conveyed.

A few feet up from her, another beggar danced, without coordination, displaying some physical deformity. It is hard to know whether to call her a girl or a woman, because in body she was dressed and styled like an eight-year-old, and in face she looked over forty.

The backdrop against which these beggars stood, and the filler for all of these scenes, was the casino crowd. It was easier for me to understand the presence of residents and workers, who for whatever brokenness at least seem to belong there. But, in the midst of that whole scene, the scores of white senior citizens chasing Borgata and lewd comedians like Robin Williams raised the largest sense of outrage and futility that I felt.

The way I felt about all of this didn't really hit me until about an hour ago, several hours and a nap after returning. In a different situation I might shout and cry. Instead I raise this small outcry against Trump's stronghold on the beach.

The New Testament asserts that all of creation was made by and for Jesus Christ, and that one day he will return to assert his ownership of every square inch. While I feel powerless against that monstrous boardwalk, I long for the day when he will put an end to all of its lies and all of its pain.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

God of the Forgotten

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,

to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
Luke 1:26-27
I've been thinking a good deal lately about groups of forgotten people. In particular, I've thought of a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia and an island in Alaska.

The Philly neighborhood is one row of houses on one side of one block of one street. It's nearly surrounded by commercial establishments like car dealerships and the like, and it borders Kensington Avenue, which is a major commercial strip. Every four minutes the Market-Frankford El goes past overhead. Many of the people who live there are related, and in the past even more were.

About twelve years ago, prostitutes moved into the area. It makes sense that they would because, as I said, not many people live there. There isn't a whole lot the residents can do, other than call the police and hope they come. Their biggest concerns are for their children, and not just that they are exposed to such things at a young age; the prostitutes' used drug needles litter the sidewalks and the overgrown grass.

As powerless as the residents may be to drive this blight from their midst, the prostitutes for their part seem rather powerless themselves. Young prostitutes are too young - 15, 16 - and look a grotesque parody of little girls playing dress-up. Old prostitutes look too old. The memory of one limping past to take respite in her car without a license plate is particularly striking.

Angoon, Alaska is home to 500 or so Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit) Native Americans. The island has one gas station and one store, and approximately 25 people actually have jobs. The rest live off of two sources: money every month from the U.S. government, and an incredible abundance of marine life.

I don't know the history behind the money from the government, but I wonder at its purpose. What is it, hush money? It reminds me of a tagline from a game I used to play: "Sorry we shelled your village. Here's some gold."*

As often occurs among Native Americans and among people with little to do in general, alcoholism and drug addiction are dominant forces on the island.

I can't but wonder if "forgotten" people like these two groups actually outnumber the "remembered." How many suffer and no one knows of them, let alone cares? We are people who exalt the exalted, and humble the humbled.

And so, I think it not insignificant that Jesus was born to parents from Nazareth of Galilee. To get an idea of a modern day equivalent, imagine something like Hicktown, West Virginia. A small town in an insignificant region.

God remembers forgotten people all through the first chapter of Luke. All who are mentioned - an old priest, his barren wife, a young girl - receive enormous blessing, their prayers heard (v. 13), their reproach taken away (v. 25), and their lowly state regarded (v. 48). They were each in time filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 67, 41, 35) and received advance notice of the amazing work that Mary's baby would do (v. 69, 43, 32).

God remembers forgotten people today. He sends his people to them and stirs them to love them as he does. If this were not so, I would know of none of the things about which I write today.

I pray that the God of Nazareth in Luke would show himself more to be the God of Kensington and the God of Angoon in 2008. As he did then, I pray he would send his angels and his saints to prepare the way of the Lord.

Don't give up now.
A break in the clouds -
We will be found.

Rescue is coming.
Rescue is coming.

-David Crowder Band

*Wow, I was more right than I thought. From wikipedia:

In 1882, a whaling vessel's harpoon charge accidentally misfired and exploded, killing a crewmember who was a Tlingit shaman, or medicine man. Villagers demanded payment of 200 blankets to the man's family, as was customary. The Northwest Trading Company sought help from the United States Navy at Sitka. Angoon and a nearby summer camp were shelled and destroyed by the Navy Cutter U.S.S. Corwin.

...

In 1973, Angoon won a U. S. $90,000 settlement from the United States Government for the 1882 bombardment.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Consumers, Producers, and Capitalists

Consumerism is an oft-criticized force in these blogging circles. There can also be a backlash from those who feel such critiques are implicitly critiques of capitalism itself. I'm thinking of this guy.

At any rate, I recently came across an elegant statement of why consumerism is bad. In the short book "Handoff," Jeff Myers says that today's youth have been "raised to consume rather than produce" (92).

In this way of looking at it, consumerism is not a choice made in a vacuum. It is the flip side of production. It is taking rather than giving.

As for the assertion that today's youth are more consumeristic than previous generations, that at least seems a reasonable hypothesis. In my picture of the past (by definition idealized and incomplete), it seems like Americans found their identity more in their occupation or their trade. Just look at all of the surnames that are trades - Mason, Baker, Smith, and so on.

In college I noticed people still defined themselves by their (future) occupation, but I think more indirectly. People want to be investment bankers not for the sake of the work that investment bankers do, but for the lifestyle that they lead. In other words, not for what they produce, but for what they consume.

Now, I don't think it's right to find identity in an occupation. The Christian finds his identity rooted in Christ, and what the Gospel says he is - a saved sinner, a child of God. There is no need, nor any real possibility, of adding to this with our own works.

But there is real value in being creative (in the most Genesis 1 sense of the word), in doing good works for the Lord. In fact, these are to adorn our lives as sweet offerings to God, and we look forward to a reward for faithful stewardship.

Consumption in itself isn't bad - for, as Jesus says, the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). But as a mode for finding our identity, it is quite dangerous.

In sum, consumerism is empty because it finds identity in taking. "Producerism" is still off the mark, but perhaps less so.

And this need not be a critique of capitalism, which is based on the premise that we all benefit from exchange - in other words, from simultaneous giving and taking.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

True Education

Lasagna facilitates true education.**

The high school physics textbook from which I will be teaching next year begins with a philosophical treatise on the nature of science and its relation to religion, the arts, and technology.

Were I teaching a worldview class, this chapter would provide me with weeks of material. A pure physics course could probably skip the chapter without missing a beat. Fortunately, the philosophy of my school allows the former to supplement the latter.

Among many thought-provoking quotes, I find:
A truly educated person is knowledgeable in both the arts and the sciences.
I believe this summarizes the philosophy behind liberal arts education. Penn's College of Arts and Sciences, the school from which I have my degree, still practices this idea in theory: In addition to 18.5 courses in my major (physics), I had to take courses from seven varied sectors, in addition to language, writing, and quantitative data analysis requirements. In this way, no student gets out of the College without being exposed to the full spectrum of arts and sciences.

In theory.

It doesn't surprise me that the above quote would come from a physicist. Most physicists I've encountered are also students of the liberal arts. Many consider themselves philosophers, or so their actions indicate (like the writing of this chapter), and many have deep love for literature. Indeed, I feel I could have almost as easily majored in English or history as physics or biology, and I treasured the excursions into these other subjects which my requirements permitted me.

However, I can't help but feel that the reverse is considerably less true for most students of the liberal arts. While most of my colleagues in physics enjoy studies in music or philosophy or religious studies, friends majoring in liberal arts disciplines are likely to take the easiest and fewest courses in science and math possible.

Geology is a favorite because it fulfills two requirements simultaneously. So instead of plumbing the wonders of creation with the time permitted them, students suffer through a semester of rocks and plate tectonics (interesting, to be sure, but hardly at the top of the list) and learn very little.

I think this highlights a real failure. A popular excuse is that these students simply can't handle real science courses, but I'm skeptical. Students at Penn have demonstrated considerable aptitude in math and science before being admitted.

Instead, I think there is very little popular appreciation for the sciences. And it is quite possible that introductory courses for non-majors go about things the wrong way.

Perhaps physics courses for non-majors should include conceptual overviews of the great staggering truths of physics: To describe light as either a particle or a wave, or even as both, is inadequate. Time moves slower when you move faster. It is literally impossible to know exactly where something is at a specific time.

I could go on. Having an inkling of these ideas changes fundamentally one's conception of reality, something which undoubtedly deserves expression in the arts. Intro courses should make them clear.

However, I think the core problem is that our culture somehow devalues science. Science is for geeks and mad professors, but only technology has relevance for the general public. It doesn't have nearly as much to teach about the human condition than literature or history. Or so the assumptions go.

Bunk, I say. As a science teacher, I hope to instill otherwise.

As for you who haven't filled your science requirements, do yourselves a favor. Don't take the boring way out.

*My old housemate Carlos is a notable exception. An English major, Carlos wishes he had done physics. Now there's a man with his head on straight.
**Gosh, by year's end two of these people will be married, and the other two likely aren't very far behind. Growing up is weird...

Mornings No!

Best viewed after staying up all night, as on this occasion.
Otherwise kill me.

Part of me is dying soon.

Scintillating excitement flashes through me when the last member of my family heads to bed. I treasure the solitude and the darkness of the late night hours. They are my very favorite part of the day.

In order to get to school with enough sleep, my school year bed time will be 9:00.

Pray for me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Meditative Thought

All that is good is from Him;
All that is from Him is good.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Book Reviews: First Two Thirds 2008

My friend leighcia reads a lot of books. She posts reviews on her lovely blog every three months or so.

I read some books. I'll also try my hand at reviewing.

Not aware of, let alone feeling an irresistible urge to justify, the theses implicit in star ratings,* I'll use leighcia's scale, which I believe comes from goodreads:

* Didn't like it.
** It was okay.
*** I liked it.
**** I really liked it.
***** It was amazing.

On to the books:

Fiction

***** White Noise (Don DeLillo)
I read this book straight through without any prior knowledge of it except the title and that several friends loved it. So, after reaching the end, I was shocked to discover that it was published in 1985, the year I was born. The terrifying yet ordinary life which DeLillo depicts in this novel felt as true today as then.

Matthew's comment here (where I also rave) describes this book better than I could:
Don DeLillo is one of the few contemporary novelists good enough to have that paradigm-transference effect. He's an alchemist of the mundane --- but not in a mundane-becomes-sublime/exalted kind of way (which is how most postmodern creative people see themselves, because they don't believe in anything that's ACTUALLY sublime). Rather, in his work the mundane becomes ominous, forboding, paranoia-inducing (the supermarket scene!!!). I love that. It's the closest thing to fables or cautionary tales that the postmodern world has produced. Beware aimless floating on the sea of radio and television signals...
*** One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)
Again at the behest of my friends, and again knowing nothing but the title and some loose idea that this was "magical realism," I read this apparently semi-allegorical novel about seven generations of the Buendía family in a miscellaneous Latin American town called Macondo. Márquez's writing knocked my socks off, especially in his interweaving of the magical with the real. However, without spoiling too much, I think the book could have as easily been titled One Hundred Years of Futility, and that made it less pleasant to get through. I also could have probably benefited from some more background.

Non-Fiction
**** The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
To be fully honest, I only read the first three sections of this book, and not the final one about foraging.

Pollan gives a great overview of the American food system, in particular showcasing how industrial of an industry it is. While the book is most famous for its meditations on corn, the section on the grass farm was most fascinating to me. It describes a Virginia farmer who, through active management of livestock placement, exploits the full web of an ecosystem you might have learned about in biology class. His land is acre for acre more productive than the industrial standard, and comes off as far more in line with natural design and common sense. Descriptions of the FDA's forced establishment of the industrial standard were enlightening and infuriating.

***** Knowing God (J.I. Packer)
Every Christian should read this book.

*** Being White (Paula Harris & Doug Schaupp)
A book by white Christians for white Christians, this one seeks to exhort and encourage its readers to discover and realize the Gospel's vision for ethnic reconciliation. The book does well by insisting color-blindness isn't enough, that experiences displaced from majority culture are essential, and that white identity can be redeemed. For me, the section on racism was particularly challenging and deep-digging.

**** Shakespeare: The World As Stage (Bill Bryson)
I never really appreciated Shakespeare. Since I seemed to be the only one, and since Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors, I decided to give this one a try. It was fantastic. Bryson is very funny and has a talent for taking simple facts and rendering them into a coherent, pointed picture. He draws inferences at once obvious and easily overlooked. The book is less a biography of Shakespeare than it is a book about how little we actually know about Shakespeare, and how much speculation has attempted to fill the gap. It developed in me an appreciation for the man's genius, and thoroughly laid to rest any silly claims that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, or didn't exist, or whatnot.

I saw a performance of As You Like It for free last Sunday in Clark Park and enjoyed it thoroughly, in no small part thanks to this book.

***** Getting a Grip on Your Money (William C. Wood)
Practically speaking, the best book I have ever read that wasn't written by God. Just having graduated college and without the foggiest idea what to do with my finances, I feel this book told me all I need to know to manage my money wisely and shrewdly for life. Wood is an economist with a long history of helping people with their money. He lays all of his cards on the table, even maintaining a web site to keep the advice current. The goal everywhere is eliminating worry rather than blind accumulation of wealth. Every page drips wisdom that is centered on common sense, an acute knowledge of human nature, and the Gospel.

Buy it on Amazon for the best $2 you've ever spent.

--
Average rating: four stars. Not bad.

*Read the comments here to see what I'm talking about.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Worshiping At c

Ah, Physics 364. Those were the days.

You are moving at the speed of light.

So am I. So is everything.

If that sounds preposterous, you're only thinking in three dimensions, while neglecting the fourth: time.

If you're acquainted with Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, or at least some decent science fiction, you know that the faster someone moves through space, the slower that person moves through time.*

The reason everyday experience doesn't reflect this truth is we never approach speeds through space where this is relevant. But if you were to travel at the speed of light (impossible, I know, but forget that for a moment), you would actually cease to move through time at all.

A technical way of phrasing this idea would be to say that the magnitude of our velocity through all four dimensions of space and time is a constant, c, the speed of light.

Why do I mention this? Well, for one I find it fascinating. Maybe you find it less fascinating, and that's why I'm the one with a physics degree. At any rate, the concept is directly analogous to one about which I thought in church today.

That other concept relates to worship. God commands, in both the Old and New Testaments, that his followers should love him with their entire being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. In short, their entire lives should be worship.**

Such demands of devotion are not unique to Christianity and Judaism. It is often noted that religious believers of all stripes have in common the desire to "open themselves" to a "higher power," whatever that means. And it is here that many atheists find a great advantage for themselves. That advantage is freedom from worship.

If there is no higher power, as atheists believe, then all worshipers are wasting their time and, if they're sincere enough, their lives. By sidestepping this flaw in human nature, atheists are free to invest their devotion elsewhere. They thus lead tremendously more efficient lives; rather than spend one hundred percent of their energies on a God, as the Bible would command, they spend zero.

Such is the atheist-humanist gospel. In this view, religion is the great problem, because people waste their lives on it and even kill each other over it. If people could simply accept that there is no God, they say, we would be able to build the true future of our species. (Not that we'll be able to enjoy it; by then any of us will be luxuriating in oblivion.)

However, such thinking is based on the flawed preconception that freedom from worshiping God is freedom from worshiping. It might seem to be true, just as it might seem that by sitting still one is not moving. However, just as a stationary person continues at the speed of light through time, we all give our entire being away. It is our choice whether that gift is to God or to something which ultimately perishes.

There are a host of things which people worship yet aren't God. Some devote themselves to the pursuit of money, or power, or a legacy, or another human being. We're all familiar with these things, yet we're perhaps not as familiar with calling them what they are: idols. Stand-ins for God.

Everyone, even those who profess to devote themselves to God, is affected by the idols' shiny allure. And I know by experience that silver and gold and all their kin are far harsher masters than is my God.

Atheists are correct to observe that fundamental to human nature is a desire to worship; they are incorrect to disregard it. Unfortunately, the belief that there is no God and ultimately no purpose to anything, precludes them from considering the purpose of this facet of nature.

The clues are right there. God has sewn them into every stitch of creation. When we resist following them to their natural conclusion, we gain not freedom but bondage. That is to say nothing of answering to a being who is owed our all and finds us delinquent in our account.

*If you're not familiar with that idea, you're certainly familiar of animations where characters stretch very long when they are moving very fast. That effect, called length contraction, is intimately related to the one of which I speak: time dilation.
**This doesn't mean that his people aren't to love anyone or anything else, as is made clear by the accompanying command to love one's neighbors as oneself. But that love and devotion must always fall under the heading of love for and devotion to God.
***In light of God's just demands for our entire being
, John Piper has advice: Don't Waste Your Life.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Block From Which I Chip?

Unintentional coordination.
I almost wore a grey tie, too.

He's the source of one fourth of my genes, and now he's joined the blogosphere!

He's my grandpa. I've often thought that if you were to give him a typewriter and lots of time, he could provide you with volumes upon volumes of encyclopedic knowledge. Perhaps his blog is the closest we'll ever get.

The title, too, delights my sense of wordplay. It's called "View from the West Lea:"

west (noun):*
1 a: the general direction of sunset : the direction to the left of one facing north b: the compass point directly opposite to east

lea (noun):*
1: grassland, pasture

Wesley (noun):
1: Grandpa's first name.

To complete the picture, know that Grandpa will often be writing about issues pertinent to where he lives, on the west bank of the Chesapeake Bay. So the title represents both his point of view and the area about which he's writing.

Zing!

*Definitions from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

San Francisco: Model of Eden?

Little known Bible fact: the Earth as it existed in the time of Adam and Eve was without rain. Why?
...For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground;

but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.
Genesis 2:5b-6
For any who don't have any idea what that would be like - I encourage you to check out San Francisco to get the gist of it!

Shrouded in fog.

Many believe, since there's no more mention of rain until Noah, that the rains of the Flood were the first that the world ever experienced. That would make Noah's display of faith that much more impressive!

God: Noah, I want you to build a boat. It's going to rain for forty days and forty nights.

Noah: You got it. What's rain?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Keystone Solution

Gorgeous. The weather isn't bad, either.

Thoughts while I visit California:

In Pennsylvania, weather varies primarily in time. There is stark variation across the four seasons, or across patterns from one week to the next, or even within one day. On many occasions, a look into a clear sky has led me to lock my bike in the open, only to return to it later soaking.

In California, weather varies primarily in space. The part of San Francisco in which I'm vacationing is often covered in thick fog. However, a drive of twenty minutes across the Golden Gate Bridge brings me to sun and another fifteen degrees Fahrenheit in Marin County.

Humans have developed fast and convenient ways of traveling through space. Disappointingly, they have developed no way to travel through time. Surely this is one reason real estate in California is so sought after.

Pennsylvania struggles with losing people, especially college graduates, to the Sunshine Belt. Surely the best way to alleviate this problem would be to invent a time machine.

Governor Rendell? Anyone?

A Glimpse Into The Future?

According to Fox News, a Canadian woman lost custody of her children for sending her daughter to school twice with a swastika drawn on her arm.

As deplorable as such an act is, it boils down to deeming a mother unfit because of her beliefs. It's not a large leap to see taking away the children of parents who, say, don't take proper action against global warming.

I have read of other disturbing trends in Canada,* such as essentially losing the freedom of speech. As Canada seems in some ways to be the logical progression of trends in the United States today, I wonder if this country isn't far behind.

*Most of what I hear about the Great White North comes from David Warren, who I believe has many true and important things to say.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

False Doctrine on the News

I briefly saw a cable news segment tonight criticizing John McCain for his reluctance to offer an on-the-spot opinion on insurance companies which cover medicine for erectile dysfunction but not oral contraceptives. The logic behind this report peeves me.

We're talking about equivalent situations here, right? Many men need medication for erectile dysfunction in order to have sex; many women need oral contraception in order to have sex. Paying for only one situation is a clear case of sexism!

I disagree. In the man's case, there is something wrong with his body, albeit often a natural result of aging.* In the woman's case, the only thing "wrong" with her is fertility. I resent calling this natural state a condition to be methodically subdued.

Americans today would much rather sex and reproduction were two noninteracting spheres, but nature nags otherwise. Many demand contraception to accomplish this divorce and maintain the modern life, but I do not acknowledge a fundamental human right to be barren.

Deeper than the insistence that sex be enjoyed without fear of attachment to another human being, or of the catastrophe that would be creation of new life, is the loud insistence that all people are exactly the same. For decades academics have obsessed over promulgating the worldview that no difference among humans is fundamental, and therefore any existing difference can and should be eradicated.

Society is constructed, they say. Morality is constructed. Emotions are constructed. Gender is constructed. "If it is constructed, then I will demolish it, and build my own."

Vanity and Babel. No amount of scholarly analysis or advance of medicine will bring a man to give birth.

We are stuck with the we that we are.

*I don't necessarily think ED should be covered by insurance. It probably depends on the situation. As my friend Josh puts it, "if a 70-year-old guy wants to pretend he's 40, he can do it without me picking up any of the tab."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Even a Few

In need of hope.

I'm reading a great book about the role of Christians in the city. Author Ray Bakke, raised in rural post-World War II Washington state, became the reluctant pastor of a congregation of hundreds at the age of 23. In the 1960's he moved to Chicago, an explosive place at an explosive time, and remained there for the next 30 years.

In a chapter entitled "Can We Save a City Like Sodom?" Bakke discusses the transformational power of even a few Christians living in and for a city, as well as the widespread withdrawal of Christians from cities in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bakke writes:
When I became a pastor in Chicago [in 1965], my first community service was the funeral of the neighboring pastor and wife two blocks down the street from the church. They had been stabbed to death during the night in what is still an unsolved crime. One of their three preschool children stopped the postman at the door the following morning and plaintively asked, "Can you wake up my daddy?" As I described the situation to my mother later that week, she asked - doubtless thinking of my own little boys - "How long are you going to stay in Chicago?"

I replied, "As long as I can count on other believers here. If I can't, I'll run far and fast."
From Ray Bakke, "A Theology As Big As the City" (1997), pg. 41
When a 23-year-old aspiring teacher was murdered in Philly recently, my mom asked me if I really wanted to live in Philadelphia. I told her that if everyone who was able to leave the city were to do so, things would be even worse for those who couldn't get out.

Bakke believes that the welfare of a city is contingent on the presence of God's people within it. Indeed, he notes Jesus calls his followers salt (a preservative) and light (exposing, eliminating darkness). Genesis teaches us that Sodom* could have been spared by the presence of ten of God's followers (18:22-33). Indeed, in Jeremiah we learn that Jerusalem could have been saved by even one seeker of the truth (5:1).

So I think Bakke is onto something. If God is who the Bible says he is, cities desperately need His people, any of His people, to live in and for them, to death if necessary. And those who do so must unite in their purpose, or all will be adrift.

These principles are the those that lead me to seek employment in Philadelphia now that I have graduated. It's time to put my money where my mouth is.


On a final note, contrast the importance of this call with the widespread response of the church when things have gotten rough in the cities:
I don't need to tell American Christians that we live in a day of large-scale Christian withdrawal from large sections of our cities. The people running away from Los Angeles are bumping into the people running away from Chicago, somewhere in Colorado's pristine mountains, or so it seems at times. The results: social gaps grow, God is furious, and our nation is at risk (44).
We have a history of flight and failure, not to atone for (for Jesus has done that), but to learn from. Let us boldly approach the throne of grace and find our Lord's heart for his city:
Can we save a city like Sodom? Of course we can, and we must. Thankfully the preserving effect of a few righteous people is much more widespread than we might think (46).

"For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says."
Mark 11:23
*It is a common misconception that God destroyed Sodom primarily because of sexual immorality in the city. Ezekiel 16:48-50 reveals that the primary reason God destroyed it was that though the people of the city were economically prosperous, they did not help the poor and needy. Is there any city today in which this neglect is not widespread?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Image is in the details.

The logo is a siren. Mistake?

Not being a coffee drinker, I was confused by the sizes at a Starbucks recently. Fortunately, they provide handy examples up front, from which I deduced the following translations:

Tall normally means something is bigger than its peers, but in this case tall means small. Customers ordering a tall are freed from feeling like they are depriving themselves.

Grande
means large. Instead of feeling guilty about indulging, customers can take a caffeinated vacation south of the border. Arriba!

Venti means Supersize. We have learned though from our forebears in the 1990's that Supersize will kill you. So Starbucks had to rename it. Venti is Italian for 20, as in the number of ounces in the drink, or the square root of the caffeine dose.

It's great ideas like these that helped Starbucks open a new location every workday in the 1990's.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Developments Explained

Red: My home. Purple: My favorite bike route. Yellow: Housing developments.
Made using Google Earth. Click to enlarge.


A lot changes in 18 years.

That's how long I've lived at 63 Ruth Avenue in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In the scheme of things, that's no time at all. And yet, look at all of the yellow circles above.

Those circles mark housing developments which have gone up in the time I've lived here. You can see these four all within two miles of my home, with one just beyond my backyard. By convention, these places are named after that which they supplant: "Kimberton Meadows;" "Brimful Farms;" "Foxfield;" "Heritage Place." They are also known as "what's wrong with America."

My ears bristled at the sharp criticism that my friend leighcia, with some help from Jane Jacobs, leveled against the suburbs. Simulating nature? That's not what I learned from all of those bike rides growing up, or from the tall maples and soft moss in my front yard.

I think what leighcia was really addressing, as clarified in the comments section and by her husband Matthew, is not what lies along the purple bike path, but what lies within the yellow circles. Here we are on the same page.

Two questions surround these developments. First, why would anyone build these houses? Second, why would anyone want to live in them?

The explanation to the first question is simple, if unsatisfactory: economies of scale. It's much easier and cheaper for one company to build a lot of nearly identical houses all at once than if each house were to be built to order by its future inhabitants. While that makes economic sense (often the only sense something needs to make for it to happen), it leaves out much of what should go into making a home.

I believe the central flaw lies in that the people designing and building the homes are not, in general, the people who will be living in them. Design ingenuity centers on modularity and ease of construction rather than on quality of final product.

From the point of view of construction workers, since the homes are to be built and never seen again, why take pride in them? Why make anything sturdy, or unique, or (dare I suggest) beautiful? Certainly not for personal credit - that will go to Toll Brothers. It becomes a job to complete, not one to do well.

Blame cannot rest entirely on the builders. They are only in one sense giving people what they want. Going back to my second question then, why would anyone want to live in these houses? I present a hypothesis.

First, the homes are generally expensive, which makes them symbols of status. They carry characteristics that give the appearance of wealth, such as high ceilings and large square footage. This is true regardless of how ugly they are.

So young couples looking to start a family go right for the houses which broadcast that they are already successes. They may not be able to afford them, but is success really something you can afford not to buy?

Since the houses are built at the same time, lots of young couples at the same stage of life flock in at the same time. They bring vehicles which broadcast success and drive around their children who broadcast success. The homogeneity of the neighborhoods becomes homogeneity of the neighbors.

The removal of many differences between people in these developments might sound like a recipe for a close-knit community, but I don't think that is what usually develops. Community breathes through interdependence, but this vision of success is built on independence.

Instead of community then, residents find an individualist conformity. Since everyone pursues the same vision simultaneously, the way to be most successful is to deviate the least from that vision.

This is exemplified in the classic suburb exercise, mowing the lawn. Because of builder demands for house density and buyer demands for near-mansions, few development houses have yards to speak of. Regardless, on Saturdays everyone mows their postage stamps at the same time.

We see then why people build and live in droves of hideous houses. People will take success in whatever package they are told contains it. None of the success signals outlined above require houses to be of any aesthetic quality. So they aren't.

My description of the mentality of those who live in these developments may sound a bit extreme. While I would be reluctant to apply it to individuals whom I know and love, I do think in the aggregate these ideas go a long way toward explaining the four yellow circles around my house.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Career Discernment: A Christian Perspective

What will we do?
Photo courtesy Jay Hiatt.
Po Bronson was not the first person to ask, "What Should I Do with My Life?" Nor shall he be the last. After interviewing hundreds of people from many walks of life, Bronson's basic conclusion was, "Do what you love."

Dakota Pippins, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, offers a more nuanced view for Christians. Dakota might say, "Find a purpose-driven career at the intersection of your creative and your redemptive passions."

What does all of that mean? Let's unpack it slowly.

First, let's talk about the purpose-driven career, as opposed to the career-driven purpose. Note that in the former, the purpose comes first, while in the latter, career comes first. In the latter, a well-meaning person chooses a career and then seeks to shoehorn that career into service for the Kingdom of God.

Many of us have heard that it's possible to be an investment banker, or a janitor, or a lawyer, or a professional football player - just about anything - and still devote one's career wholly to the Lord. That's true, but Dakota would say Christians often run into problems when this career goal is given primacy - in other words, when one's career choice drives one's purpose.

The problem with this situation is that a person's ability to take godly risk is minimized. If a career choice is taken as a fundamental presupposition, then when a person is faced with a choice between maintaining security in that career or risking it for the Kingdom, he or she will have a much harder time putting the career on the line. On the other hand, if his or her career is merely one expression of God-given talents and passions, then he or she will have a much easier time making the right choice. This idea is what is meant by a purpose-driven* career.

Dakota also says that those with career-driven purposes can face issues of guilt for having based their decision on their own desires, rather than on a process surrendered to the Lord.

So career-driven purposes have the potential to become idols, while purpose-driven careers are part of a life wholly surrendered.

What, then, is meant by finding a career at the intersection of creative and redemptive passions? To illustrate this concept, Dakota turns to that pillar of set theory used most by second graders, the Venn diagram:

Try not to get distracted by all of the colors.

Granted, this Venn diagram is a three-fer and thus more complicated than we normally encounter, but try to keep up.

According to Dakota, three forces govern Christians' career decisions. They are creative passions, sinful motivations, and redemptive passions.

Creative passions are basically things that you are good at. The concept of these comes out of Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and commissioned them to, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

Creative passions are what work was before the Fall. They are described perfectly in a famous statement from Chariots of Fire: "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." Maybe you have a love for accounting. Maybe knitting. I love computer programming. These are all creative passions.

Likewise, we are all familiar with sinful motivations. Desire for human approval; love of money; desire to build an earthly legacy. These motivations came in the picture at the Fall. Sinful motivations are static in the airwaves of communication between a person and God. It is harder to hear and understand his voice when they are present.

Third, redemptive passions are desires to join Jesus in his work of restoring this fallen world according to the vision of the Gospel. By very nature, these passions are developed after one already has a saving relationship with Christ. These might include wanting to share the Good News with people in the Middle East, or wanting to bring together children of different socio-economic backgrounds in the equality that only the Cross offers. One of my own redemptive passions is to see all of God's peoples live together in one body, retaining distinct identities yet being one in the Spirit of the Lord.

Most people, Dakota says, choose a career that lies in the orange zone of the diagram, combining both creative passions and sinful motivations. Maybe you wield logic like a fencer wields a sword and you want to make a lot of money. So you become a lawyer. This kind of path is most natural to follow, but it feeds appetites which should be starved and misses the mark of following Christ's voice in all facets of life.

Adding redemptive passions to the mix focuses our creative passions toward ushering in the Kingdom of God. However, if sinful motivations are still present, we attempt to serve two masters, which as we learned is impossible (Luke 16:13). You cannot try to build orphanages in Jamaica while trying to make a name for yourself; if you do, you are a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). So the center of the Venn diagram is not an acceptable final destination.

Truly godly career discernment occurs in the purple region intersecting creative and redemptive passions. Take what you're good at. Take what you want to do for Jesus. Put them together. Voila! Purpose-driven career.

Many look at career discernment as trying to find the one job to which God has called them. That idea does not flow from the picture presented here. God will take and use mightily anything from that magic purple zone, and the choice is really up to us. "Opening doors and closing doors isn't the primary way God helps in discernment," says Dakota.

In this choice there is freedom. Rather than struggling to remain on some sort of career tightrope, the theoretical One Right Path, God invites us to join him in discovering how to redeem the world. Yeah God!

There you have it. Examine your motivations. Be wary of career-driven purposes. Ask God to show you your redemptive passions, and to adjust the size of the three circles. Go for the purple. Anywhere in the purple.

And the world better watch out, because you bout to catch fire.

Ben finds the intersection of his creative and redemptive passions.
Photo courtesy Ellen Williams.

Wise and miscellaneous points from Dakota's presentation:
  • Creative-redemptive overlap isn't always direct. Professors who share the Gospel in closed countries are an example - here the creative passion is the gateway to the redemptive one.
  • Filling in the three circles of the Venn diagram is a helpful and discerning exercise. Try it. Examine yourself. Ask God. Ask others.
  • Don't be the kind of person who says in college, "I'm not going to give now, but I will when I have money." It's not going to happen.
  • To that end, get started managing your money now. If you don't know how, read Getting a Grip On Your Money by William C. Wood. I can lend it to you.
  • There's nothing wrong in principle with having lots of income. Says Dakota, "I'm a big fan of income." But he says it's very rare to meet people who both make a lot and give a lot.
  • "Wherever you are in life, spend a lot of time interacting with people who have a lot less than you."
  • Shadowing people in a career you're thinking about is a great idea. Why not get an idea of what it's like before spending three years in grad school, only to discover that animal husbandry, at times, stinks?
  • Not everything we are good at will end up in our careers. It's okay. I don't have to chug milk for a living.**
  • The Settlers of Catan is a worthy and enjoyable game for men and women alike.
Thanks, Dakota!
Photo courtesy Ben Hanna.

*Not to be mistaken for The Purpose Driven Life.

**But I could.

[Note: This essay was adapted from a talk given by Dakota Pippins to Penn InterVarsity on May 16
, 2008. Dakota has graciously allowed me to attempt this distillation.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Products v. Producers In Action

To see at work the "products vs. producers" framework I described for understanding liberalism and conservatism, check out this comic, which Stefanie sent me:*

La Cucaracha by Lalo Alvarez, 5/31/2008**
Taken and available online from gocomics here.

Liberal viewpoint: Voting for John McCain is equivalent to sending our children to fight in Iraq. As long as there's a war on, our finest will continue to enlist, and some will lose their lives.

Conservative response: No one is sending anyone out to Iraq. Our young men and women enlist of their own accord. The idea of parents registering their children to ship out is laughable and insulting.

*Aren't friends who send you snail mail and newspaper clippings the best?
**I wonder if this strip would be any less effective if the car was removed and only word bubbles remained. Aside from some comedic timing, this hardly seems to qualify as a comic strip.

Teh Awesome

I'm so happy that there is a Wikipedia entry for the word "teh." They actually describe it as an English article.

Only something built on user-generated content could have entries for things so obscure. And the page has over 500 revisions over its history!

What an age we live in.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

My Name is Nicholas

Rock stars: is there anything they can't do?
Image grabbed from weezer.com.

New Weezer album! Yeah!

Weezer is the most popular group I think I've ever liked. Virtually all of my favorite music was written by dead men, whether Ludwig van Beethoven or Jerry Garcia. But few high school memories are fonder than Blue Album sing-a-longs.

I gave the new album a listen-through and I like it. Wikipedia cites frontman Rivers Cuomo in saying the album includes, "longer songs, non-traditional song forms, different people writing and singing, instrument switching, TR-808s, synths, Southern rap, and baroque counterpoint." You can hear all of that.

The fascinating part of Weezer to me is their blending of the artful and the popular. After the success of their debut album, they released Pinkerton, which was a concept album of a Puccini opera. It wasn't successful, and in backlash they released The Green Album, which is rather empty and unadventurous and was thus very successful.

Another example - according to Wikipedia,
The second single off Make Believe was "We Are All on Drugs"...MTV refused to play the song, so Weezer re-recorded the lyrics by replacing "on drugs" with "in love" and renaming the song "We Are All in Love".
Finally, they had to add songs to the most recent album because it didn't have enough "marketable" material. So they just made some. The album's first single, "Pork and Beans," was written for that reason, and it's been their most successful single ever.

In other words, it seems like the band sticks mostly to what they like to do, effortlessly supplementing with "sellout" material to further their aims. I think it's hilarious and admirable.

Finally, check out the music video for "Pork and Beans" below. It features many of the most popular YouTube stars. While in general I hate music videos, I think this one is a valuable cultural artifact:


"Pork and Beans"

Thanks for all you've shown us.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Are Prostitutes Trafficked?

In a recent post, I discussed liberal and conservative perspectives on how much choice people have in where they end up. I used this framework to analyze debate about prostitution and human trafficking.

While I did my best there to present both viewpoints accurately, I also wanted to set down separately which narrative I find to be more accurate with respect to prostitution.

I'll start by saying that I have far less knowledge in this area than I would like to. This is especially true when talking about circumstances outside the United States. If you feel I am mistaken, I invite you to correct me in the comments section.

As with most things, I think the neither of the two perspectives presented quite captures the truth. However, I will not be so wishy washy as to say that I find both to be equally valid.

Remember that what I presented as the liberal viewpoint says that people's choices are greatly constrained by their circumstances, and in the case of many at the bottom of society, there often are few choices at all. See page seven of the handbook* I listed before for a survey of some circumstances that those who enter prostitution often share. They include childhood sexual abuse, incest, and physical abuse. In addition, the pamphlet cites that the international median age for entry into prostitution is 14.

In other words, many make this choice when they could still be considered children. True, the childhood that in the United States often extends well into the 20's is much different than the standard present many places in the world. But the forces of puberty are reasonably new to all at these ages, and a defining characteristic of young people is their inability to manage such forces well. And abuse greatly warps anyone's ability to manage these forces, let alone children.

So while these girls are capable of making a choice, their ability to choose wisely is heavily impaired. I conclude that circumstances in the lives of the majority of those who enter prostitution make them unfit to make such a choice. In that sense, since these do not have the protectors that they ought, I am willing to call them "trafficked."

Many might say that parents are responsible for protecting children from choices like prostitution, and legislation cannot substitute for good parenting. I agree, but there is another side to the equation. Forces war with parents for influence over children, and in the absence of good parenting these forces often win out.** Legislation can fight against these forces.

So I say, don't look at those who reap prostitutes' wages as men in an illicit business partnership. Look at them as oppressors. Work accordingly. This goes the same for men who use their services.

My reasoning applies specifically to those who become prostitutes at a young age, which figure to be significantly more than half worldwide. Perhaps there is some room in my reasoning for those who both choose to become prostitutes and who should be considered competent for such a choice, and thus in my view are not victims of trafficking. Should we only work against men involved with "trafficked" prostitutes?

In my understanding, no such distinction exists. Pimps and johns do not investigate whether or not prostitutes make their choices from a healthy context. And really, I am quite skeptical that such prostitutes exist in non-negligible amounts. Then, it makes no sense to differentiate between them when deciding how to act.

In short, I am willing to brand all pimps and the like "traffickers." So color me liberal on prostitution.

*From the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
**The language of "forces winning out" is synonymous with the language of determinative circumstances in the liberal framework that I described. As I said, while I don't accept this concept wholesale, I think that children are "impaired choosers" and shouldn't be held responsible for choices of such magnitude. In this case it is appropriate to "blame" forces influencing their choices.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

E-mail to Penn InterVarsity, 5/31/08

The visual representation of an abstract concept! Ahhhh!

Subject: Summer Reading

Hello friends,

I write to you this afternoon from my porch in southeastern Pennsylvania. Thunderstorms from earlier have rolled away and it's fresh and cool and pretty out.

You may have heard us at various times in the previous year prattle on about the importance of community. You may not have quite understood what the big deal was. It seems a simple concept, and our emphasis on it may not seem very profound. After all, don't we all live in community? Our school is in the city, and most of us further live in communities within College Houses.

The truth is that while community is a really simple idea, when it functions it has profound power to transform those who live in it. Community is not just an agglomeration of people; it's what occurs when those people take on a collective identity and life together. In real sense they become part of one another and their web of interactions changes all who are involved.

"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." - Proverbs 27:17

That might sound a tad on the creepy side to you. I think twinges of creepiness come from examples we've seen where acquiring a collective identity has meant relinquishing an individual one. We've seen streams of Nazis marching in lockstep. Communist propaganda seems to advocate this relinquishment. And there's always the Borg Collective from Star Trek.

But the paradox of Christian community is that individuals lose none of their individuality in joining it. On the contrary, as we collectively acquire more of an identity together, our individual identities are actually enhanced. We become more ourselves.

This is the mystery that we are talking about when we encourage community. It's something that must be experienced to be fully understood, but take my word for it when I say it's a marvelous thing indeed.

"If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. " - 1 Corinthians 12:26-27
(Read all of 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 for all of the classical Biblical passage on community.)

I write this to all of you today to invite you into a facet of our community that you can participate in even over the summer. I'm of course talking about - blogging!

Blogging is something I'm passionate about. A group of blogs can provide many of the same functions as an in-person community, and in some cases they do an even better job.

Blogs can be incubators of discourse. They allow people to present ideas in a format often better thought out and more communicative than in-person discussion. Comments sections and other blogs allow people to respond and have conversation.

Posters and readers alike learn and develop ideas significantly faster than is often possible in person. The result? We learn more about who we are, who we'd like to be, and what we want to do in the world. Iron sharpens iron.

Now, our in-person community of InterVarsity also has a collection of blogs associated with some of its members. As is also evident when we come together in person, they display the wonderful variety in individual identity that God has given each of us.

As I said, these blogs provide a vibrant opportunity for growth in community even now over the summer. I've included a directory and short description of many of these blogs.

And if this is the sort of thing you're interested in, I encourage you to join in on the fun. Don't let any feeling that you don't have value to contribute stop you - as with our fellowship at large, I'm certain that is not the case.

"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." 1 Corinthians 12:7

Yours,
Nick

[Note: Here's another e-mail that I could have made into a post but was just easier to leave as-is.]