Monday, April 30, 2007

Off the Shelf: Bleak House

Four Months and 881 pages later, I can say "finis" -- I've completed reading Charles Dicken's Bleak House. Just for comparison -- I finished World War Z in three days, same for The Da Vinci Code. I couldn't just do a hit and run reading of Dickens' massive tome -- I had to dwell in it for a while. With a work like this, you don't just read about the characters, you develop relationships with them -- they become a part of you.

Way back in January, I put up this post about the joys of reading -- and I also linked this this great article from the Washington Post in which a school commends Bleak House to a student:

I recently spoke with a junior who was stressed about her decreasing ability to focus on anything for longer than two minutes or so. I tried to inspire her by talking about the importance of reading as a way to train the brain. I told her that a good reader develops the same powers of concentration that an athlete or a Buddhist would employ in sport or meditation. "A lot out there is conspiring to distract you," I said.

She rolled her eyes. "That's your opinion about books. It doesn't make it true." To her, the idea that reading might benefit the mind was, well, lame.

A library's neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning -- for anything profound. Still, I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I'm turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school's library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. "The book is too long," she said. "Is the movie any better?"

So is the book too long? Not at all. Dickens is masterful in this one -- he tells about a dozen different stories under the umbrella of the story of young Esther Summerson, a sweet, lovable orphan who is taken under the care of John Jarndyce, a benevolent British gentleman who wants her to become friend and companion to his two young cousins Richard and Ada. Sounds kind of tame --

But John, Richard, and Ada are all potential inheiritors in a will that is contested in one of the most convoluted lawsuits of English history -- as the young cousins come into their own, will that drive a wedge between them? What of the brooding noblewoman, Lady Dedlock, who has a mysterious secret that she conspires to keep hidden -- and of the retired soldier who is deeply indebted to Smallweed, the loan shark. Their stories tie in along with a legion of crafty lawers who make John Grisham's creations look like the muppetts. I believe there are about four dozen characters in all, each of them vivid in detail. Dickens sketches his characters in such a way that they pull up a seat beside you and take a cup of tea (or pour the hot tea on your lap, if that's their type). You learn to love them or hate them.

Dickens isn't shy about making social statements either. He lampoons the byzantine legal system of the British Chancery courts (this novel played a part in the reform of those very systems); he upholds the plight of the urban poor (social workers should read this book -- many things have changed, and many things stay the same); he skewers the hypocrisy of "do gooders" who care awfully much about causes, but care very little for people.

Oh yes, he also includes murder, death by drug overdose, and spontaneous human combustion. Anyone approaching this book claiming boredom has only his lack of imagination to blame. It's a long read -- the kind of thing to settle down with and enjoy over a season of time. But it's one of those glorious works that made me feel cleaner, better, and ennobled through the reading. It certainly fits the criteria of Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these thngs."

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Can a Christian Watch Jon Stewart?"

“Can a Christian watch Jon Stewart” he asked me. I’ve never watched the Daily Show, so I didn’t know how to answer, I just asked for more clarification. He told me that he liked Jon Stewart’s willingness to skewer partisans on both sides of the aisle. Stewart lampoons both Democrats and Republicans with cutting precision. My friend said that Stewart is very very very funny.

Yet he’s still disturbed – for all Stewart does is mock – he tears down without ever offering any constructive solutions. And the bible has a few things to say about mockers.

“Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife. Quarrels and insults are ended.”
(Prov 22:10)

“The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” (Prov14:6)

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1)
And so on. However, things are not so simple. We also have biblical examples of mocking from some not-so-detestable sources. Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I kings 18:27ff). Paul indulges in mockery in Galatians 5:12. The challenge is to discern the difference between

a) mockery as one of many rhetorical tools in the hands of a master commentator (see Jonathan Swift for instance), and

b) the mocker who knows how to do little else than snigger about naughty bits and excuse himself with “Hey, it’s only a joke.”

Is it fair to draw such a line? I think so -- After all, I’m one of those curious sorts that has tuned in to that radio train wreck called Howard Stern. I have from time to time turned on Jerry Springer, just to see his parade of transvestite nazi alien abductees. I went to see Borat, and sadly, I paid money for it. Occasionally, I’ve tuned in to South Park or the Family Guy, just to gape in awe that people think this is funny. Yes, I’ve consumed mockery served up by our vast cultural all you can eat buffet. And I’ve found that it doesn’t settle well on my stomach.

As a consumer of pop culture, I know that simply saying “don’t watch that” has the effectiveness of a knitted umbrella. “If you don’t like it then turn it off,” is the immediate stock reply. Impatience with incessant nannying (like the tag on the superman suit that says “wearing of suit does not enable you to fly”) has devolved into intolerance of good horse sense. So you can imagine my hesitancy to render a judgment on whether Jon Stewart is acceptable fare for Christians.

On my shelf sits an amazing tome of Richard Baxter’s – the 17th century Puritan pastor of Kidderminster. Baxter is one of the more prolific of the Puritans, and this volume, titled A Christian Directory is nearly 1000 pages of small print advice for practical Christian living. Baxter, in laying out instruction on “redeeming the time” talks about a dozen or so little things that sap our strength and distract our minds. One of these topics is idle chatter:
“Another time wasting sin is idle talk. What abundance of precious time
doth this consume? Hearken to most men’s discourse when they are sitting
together, or working together, or traveling together, and you shall hear how
little of it is any better than silence: and if not better it is worse. So
full are those persons of vanity who are empty, even to silence, of any thing
that is good, that they can find and feed a discourse of nothing, many hours and
days together; and as they think, with such fecundity and floridness of style,
as deserve acceptance if not applause. I have marveled oft at some wordy
preachers, with how little matter they can handsomely fill up an hour! But
one would wonder more to hear people fill up, not an hour, but a great part of
their day, and of their lives….with words, which if you should write them all
down and peruse them, you would find that the sum and conclusion of them is
nothing!” (pg 244 of the 2000 Soli Deo Gloria Edition)
Ouch! Quite convicting as to my own preaching and my own habits. But also quite helpful in thinking about consuming the words of mockers. When I first came across this passage, I couldn’t help but think about the premise of Seinfeld – “it’s a show about nothing!”

I’m not the thinker or pastor that Baxter is, so rather than making a definitive declaration, I’ll simply pose a few questions:

Last I checked, the evidence of growing faith is that you have certain fruit developing in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Does our media consumption help or hinder that growth? Is a show like Jon Stewart’s more like a well balanced meal or like a burger and fries? You can certainly live on the spiritual equivalent of burgers and fries, but does it advance your well being? Will an occasional meal of burgers and fries destroy you?

When we take in the witty commentary of the mockers, do we feel more joyful? Or do we simply feel more sophisticated than the prigs that they’ve cut down to size?

When we enjoy the practical jokes of the mockers, are we made to be kinder to others, more peaceful and patient? Or do we feel self-satisfied that those rubes who were taken in ought to have been more careful.

When we relish the outrageousness of the mockers in their attempt to find someone to offend, do we feel good, like we’ve actually enjoyed something beautiful? Are we proud to point to that time and say it was well spent? Or do we defensively justify ourselves with lame excuses that accuse the questioner of Puritanism?

When I think of these questions, I begin to see that if there’s more than a morsel of mockery in my mental diet, then I feel greasy, dirty and cynical. I prefer to consume great works of art that stir within me the desire for goodness and being better.

“If you don’t like it, just change the channel” – fine – I’m done. I’ve come to the conclusion that the less of this stuff, the better for me. However, each person must answer for themselves – do you really enjoy what this stuff does to you? Do you really like being that way? Do you really like the results this stuff produces in you?

Let the mockers have themselves for fodder and entertainment – give me the cleanliness of earnestness any day.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Being Prepared: Thinking about responding to a flu pandemic

Machiavelli, in The Prince (which is mistakenly maligned as an "evil work" -- it's not entirely to my liking or my ethics, but there's a lot of wisdom there) talks about fortune as being akin to a raging river -- we cannot direct the flow entirely. However, during times of calmness, we can prepare for the rage by building dams, embankments, levees, and taking necessary precautions to help weather fortune's vagaries.

Good advice that. Rudi Guiliani's (No political endorsement implied) book on Leadership espouses a similar philosophy. Prior to 9/11, he had run his staff through innumerable exercises on disaster response and readiness.

Thus, I'm glad to say that today, I saw my city and county tax dollars well at work. The Health Departments of Hamilton County and Cincinnati hosted a forum to help faith leaders think through what might be asked of churches in the event of an influenza pandemic. The officials laid out some pretty serious implications, drawing on the analogy of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed over half a million americans. But this wasn't a "sky is falling" exercise -- this was an opportunity for us to think proactively about building dams and levees (to pick up Machiavelli's analogy) and prepare for what could happen.

See the CDC's website on pandemic flu preparation for more information on possible social disruption and ways to be prepared. The CDC also has a general page for emergency preparedness -- do you keep an emergency preparedness kit in your house (a small amount of cash, copies of important documents in watertight containers, asprin, batteries, water purification tablets, a blanket, some basic nonperishable food items, etc). We don't have one at present (my old scoutmaster would be ashamed), but you can be sure I'll be putting one together. See the red cross page on recommendations for what should go in your kit.

Lots to think about on this one. It's a matter of good stewardship. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this one.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bits and Pieces -- for the Taxman Cometh

Liz Bowater has a great post on the unlikely idolatry of "peace, justice, and ecology"

I work in a subculture where those three things--peace, justice, ecology--are seen as the chief end of man and I often lament the Godlessness here. In house church, while praying the Prayers of the People, my prayer for them often becomes something of a request that God would help me direct them toward worship of Him, rather than of his creation. And I have to remind myself every day that, although my coworkers and I all find great joy in the same line of work, there is a line drawn between us.

The chief end of my existence lies solely in a God that they do not know. And because of that, we exist in very, very different worlds.
Meanwhile, John Schroeder responds to one of my earlier post on intellecutual snacking.
Could it be that the new communication technology will enable a balance between the intellectual and the experiential? Can we harness it in ways that are both emotionally evocative and intellectual stimulating, acheiving the kind of wholeness that God intends? Can it be used to reach those we have previously written off as unreachable?
Here's an interesting Link to the Pew Forum's page on profiles of the major presidential candidates, their religous connections, and their basic resumes. Interesting reading, but I'm wondering when they'll get Chris Dodd and Mike Huckabee on the page? (Hat Tip: Mark Daniels)

The Evangelical Outpost gives its nominations for the most influential forces in conservative media. What are your guesses -- FOX, Limbaugh, and Coulter. Nope, not even blips on the radar. The triumvirate is: Paul Harvey, Reader's Digest, and the Boy Scout Handbook:

On Paul Harvey....Harvey is often overlooked as a influence even though he has millions more listeners than any other conservative on the radio (including Rush). His "Paul Harvey News and Comment" airs for 5 minutes in the morning and for 15 minutes before noon. Yet the octogenarian manages to say more in those 20 minutes than other hosts say in 180.....

On Reader's Digest....before email made it possible to spam your friend's inboxes, people submitted their jokes and anecdotes to "All in a Day's Work", "Life in These United States", and "Humor in Uniform." Before we had PorkBusters and Michelle Malkin, we got word of bizarre government spending and behavior from "That's Outrageous." And before there was a conservative blogosphere to digest the news, there was Reader's Digest....

and of the Boy Scout Handbook handbook we get....
Such an earnest and irony-free worldview is naturally antithetical to the South Park-style mock-the-world moronity that pervades the culture.....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Unpublished Letter -- in support of marraige

Sorry posting has been slow -- Easter is the busy season, and I just haven't had time to put things together.

Thus today's post -- a letter to the editor that I wrote last month -- it went unpublished, so I thought I'd share it here. The context: the Enquirer ran a story about second marraiges; a few days later, a gentleman wrote the Enquirer saying that marraige in general was a bad idea. What follows, is my response:

In his March 28, 2007 letter to the editor, Stephen Kessen writes “marriage is a bad idea in general.” He adds that people are free to live together and have children without need of a “piece of paper” to make it official.

I disagree. Marriage strengthens our society and makes us a better people. But a shallow view of marriage infects our society. Pick your romantic comedy and you will find a depiction of the thrill of romantic pursuit, with the implication that if marriage is an option, it should be characterized by such thrill. In this view, marriage is mainly for our personal self-fulfillment, and when it stops being self-fulfilling, then we abandon the marriage.

A wiser tradition, however, understands it to be a good thing for two people to bind each other to a lifelong commitment. One must have great courage and resolve to pledge to share in fortune and difficulty, abundance and lack. In my religious tradition, we look back to the book of Genesis, in which marriage is instituted, and we see that “…a man shall leave his father and mother and be united unto us wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The picture here is not one of self-satisfaction, but self loss. We lose a bit of ourselves in the other, but in so doing, we gain so much more.

My faith also teaches that marriage benefits the whole society. Chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs paints an idealized picture of the healthy family: setting up industry, benefiting the poor, being involved in civic affairs. In premarital counseling, I ask couples what legacy they want their marriage to leave. How will they invest in their offspring and the broader community in such a way that the world is left stronger? The commitment of marriage is far beyond doing whatever you want. It is a commitment to be a pillar of society. It may sound like hard work, but the rewards are great. Indeed, marriage helps us all understand other societal commitments, whether in business, civic, or social realms. Marriage provides a first foundational understanding for society to see that people aren’t objects to be used and disposed of; rather, people are to be cherished and honored.

I’ve had the good fortune to know many elderly couples who have been living examples of the fruit that comes from the lifetime commitment of marriage. I’ve seen people endure amazing stress while caring for a declining spouse. They persevered with joy and kindness, lovingly providing care because of the deep roots of commitment that had been grown in the rich soil of the covenant of marriage. Far better, I’d say, than the disposable relationships so common today.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Invitation to join me in microlending

You've read my many posts on microlending -- this evening, I went back out and reinvested my money from the loan paid back by Kilama George. Now I'm asking for your help. I participated in lending to this young shoe merchant in Ukraine. He has a proven track record; he runs a profit every month, and now he's looking to possibly expand his business, which means opening another kiosk (and possibly hiring another employee). As of this writing, he still need $225 -- you can lend as little as $25 through Kiva and become one of the dozens of backers for this young man. I'd love it if Eagle and Child readers could make up the gap.

Click on the picture below to get more information. If the picture does not display Maxim Chyornyi, then his loan has been fully repaid and you can assist someone else. Thanks for your help.

UPDATE -- you really came through -- I checked this morning and four more people had contributed to help complete Maxim's loan. At least one was from Cincinnati (though they hadn't completed a profile, so I don't know who it is). Thanks for being a part of the blessing for this enterprising man.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Congratulations to Kilama George

You've heard me talk about the microlending outfit Kiva (see my earlier posts). The first loan I gave through Kiva has just been completely repaid -- Kilama George. His loan request, as told on the Kiva website, was thus:
[Kilama George] works as a bracelet maker for the Invisible Children Bracelet Project.

He lives with his wife and children in the Acholi quarters. He has been there for five years ,and he came from Pader district he has six children. Before coming to LiA, he worked in the stone quarry with his wife and had a very difficult time supporting his family. His wife still works at the quarry while he works at liA. Together, their incomes now support the family and their lives have improved. However, housing is very poor in the Acholi quarter.

He has acquired a plot of land from the King of Buganda who has sympathy for the people of Acholi. On this land he plans to build a two room house for his family.
The genius of Kiva is that it works through local organizations that guarantee the loan, in this case the Life in Africa foundation working in Uganda. These local organizations provide support, accountability, and encouragement. Life in Africa is a group of people working to help themselves out of the chaos that exists because of civil war in Uganda and Sudan:

Over 85% of our members are people displaced or otherwise directly affected by Northern Uganda's 20 year long war. Together we are joining hands to lift ourselves out of poverty once and for all, and to make an impact for peace in our war-torn community.

We produce and export crafts to make a difference in the world, and promote social action initiatives online. Our unique Webbed Empowerment approach offers global communities of supporters unique ways to connect with our Ugandan community's successes and needs directly.

Life in Africa's WE Centers also offer internet training, a community microfinance program, and adult learning opportunities that are available to active members.

Uganda recently has come on the radar of Americans because of the Invisible Children campaign. For the past 15-20 years, a whole generation of young men have been press ganged to serve in the guerilla militaries -- not men of 18 or 19; we're talking boys as young as 12 and 13 being trained in explosives, hand to hand combat, and other techniques, and then being sent to wreck havoc. Think of it as a nationwide Lord of the Flies type experiement. Many young men have become refugees, wandering about trying to avoid capture by these militia. Because Uganda and Sudan border each other, the same problem is chronicled in the recent film God Grew Tired of Us, as featured recently in National Geographic. The whole region is caught in a devastating cycle of poverty and violence.

While there are many ways to help -- through diplomacy and aid efforts, another great way of helping is by restoring economic stability. Microlending plays to the strength of a local economy by investing in the entrepreneurs who are the pillars of community. I've been praying the Kilama George will be a blessing to all those around him, and that he helps make Uganda a stronger place. The loan goes directly to the entrepreneur, it isn't siphoned off by corrupt warlords. Now imagine what a hundred thousand such small loans can do....

And best of all, I've just been repaid.... so I get to loan my money out again. Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bits and Pieces -- April 3 2007

Been saving up some bits for quite some time -- hoping I could do more in depth commentary, if there were but world enough and time. Well, I'm done hording -- here's the links, make of them what you will!

  • The Jewish Theological Seminary has a fine site that gives a view of Passover through Archaeology and Ancient Documents. Browse through this gallery of Archeological finds related to passover (such as the Meremtah stele -- the first extra-biblical mention of the Hebrews in the ancient world) and ancient and modern Jewish rites for passover. Very interesting.
  • The great PBS show American Experience aired a one hour documentary on Aimee M'Pherson, the pioneering media evangelist from the early half of the 20th century. In it we learn that showbiz, spectacle, and "reclaiming America for Christ" are nothing new. We also get a sypathetic portrait of a Christian leader who was intentional about racial reconcilaition. "Aimee was equal parts evangelist, movie star and social activist," says film producer Linda Garmon. "She offered a brand of old time religion that people could connect with at a time when Americans were craving something to hold onto." See the PBS Webpage for the show for more information (the nice thing about the webpage is that they cross reference other shows that they have done on contemporary events and themes -- you can get a holistic picture of the time).
  • Beau Weston at the Gruntled Center has been on a roll. Check out this post defending the practice of parents intentionally scheduling their childrens' time: "As I reflect on the difference between my early adolescence and my son's, though, some crucial differences emerge. Sure, I watched lots of stupid cartoons. But there were not enough TV options, and no computer options, to keep me from reading or playing outside all the time. My son, on the other hand, could play "World of Warcraft" 24/7. That is, in fact, his plan for the summer. If we choose no structure at all for his time, the choice will be made for us by the "new media.""
  • Or this post of Beau's which has had me thinking for days about how much I interact with my children: "Betty Hart and Todd Risley have been studying language development in infants and toddlers for a quarter century. They have been doing this not simply for academic reasons, but to find the real causes of the advantage that higher class kids have over poor kids. Their main finding is that, in general, the higher the class of the family, the more they talk to their babies. And their amount of talk– not their social class or income or race -- predicted their children’s intellectual accomplishments." (see the article he references here -- it's worth a skim for more detail).
  • Meanwhile Gary Sweeten has a winner of a post talking about the church as a "social glue" that helps hold culture together. "Involvement in communities of faith among all goers collectively is strongly associated with giving and volunteering. Indeed, involvement in religious community is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering for religious causes as well as for secular ones. Religious communities embody one of the most important sources of social capital and concern for community in America. Religious people are great at "doing for others."Moreover, religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Holding other factors constant, religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends. "
  • Seth Godin tells you why you should write an e-book -- and how to go about doing it.