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

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.