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:


***** 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.

**** 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.