This Video Will Convince You To Put Down Your Phone… Or Should You?

This video made the rounds recently on Facebook (ironically enough).

I’ll admit, I found the video convicting. I think technology-free zones—what Sherry Turkle calls “Sacred Spaces”—are very important. The dinner table. The carpool line at school. Our loved ones should not have to fight to get our attention in these and similar places.

There’s evidence that the mere presence of a cell phone can degrade the quality of conversation, even when that phone is not being used. And frequent cell phone use has been correlated with more selfish behavior.

But. And this is a big BUT:

I’m pretty tired of the preachiness around technology. The news is not all bad! My smartphone is a powerful tool that helps me organize and manage a very complicated life. If you walk by Robert and me in a restaurant and one of us is on a cell phone, it’s probably because we got a text from the babysitter, or we’re checking movie listings. Save all your tut-tutting, please.

And as for all these so-called zombies looking down at their “idiot machines,” unless you’re playing Candy Crush or watching Netflix, chances are good there’s a human being on the other side of that screen. Are those relationships unimportant because the person happens to be living somewhere else? Tell that to family members who rely on Skype or FaceTime to connect with one another.

Remember the Little House books? The Ingalls family left the Big Woods of Wisconsin and saw the rest of their family… like, never again. Do we really want to go back to that for the sake of some kind of technological purity?

For the next few days I’ll be with a group of pastors, Christian educators, and other church leaders at Austin Seminary exploring “spirituality in the smartphone age.” My hope is that together we’ll start constructing a theology for our digital culture that is embodied yet connective, realistic yet hopeful, and most of all, helpful to people trying to navigate this world we now occupy.

This technology is here to stay. We need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves about it. That requires more nuance than you’ll get in a viral video, no matter how gripping it is.

Stay tuned.

“Will You Kiss the Leper Clean?” — On Ebola and Our ‘Tribes’

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President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.

-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, “Inauguration, Part 1″

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.

McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species—a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world’s major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our “tribal paint.” Sometimes that’s literal identifying marks—gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it’s a religious or political doctrine to define who’s in and out.

And we band together against common enemies and threats. “When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves,” he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness.”

There’s evidence that this tribalism is hard-wired. Young children naturally gravitate to people who are like them, racially and socially.

Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It’s interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being “without sin,” or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?

Sure, it’s the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary—because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.

Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed… often followed by the sotto voce comment: “I just hope it doesn’t come here.”

Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings, “There is no more far away.” We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we’ve not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.

As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it—stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.

Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who’s lost 10 members of their family.

One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.

“They tested the baby, and the baby was negative,” says Purfield. “But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.

“So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box,” she continues.

Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.

“They couldn’t just watch a baby sitting alone in a box,” Dynes says.

The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called “The Summons” by John Bell. It’s been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, “kissed the leper clean.” But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did—I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not helpful for the good ones to die—we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.

But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.

~

*Why did they cross the road? To get to the “other.”

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc

A Simple but Heartfelt Thank You

I ran across this exchange on Facebook today, kinda by accident:

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I know Mary from way back, but it still freaks me out when I stumble upon people I don’t know who’ve read my book. There’s a big part of me that still thinks the readership consists of close personal friends and everyone my mother knows.

Sabbath in the Suburbs turned two last week. People are still buying it—not hordes, but a steady stream. And folks are still write the occasional review too, which makes me happy—even when they aren’t great reviews. (The most recent review on Amazon was three stars because it “didn’t live up to the hype.” That tickled me to no end. I have hype?!?)

Even more fun, I get to come and meet so many of you who want to explore this book with your church small groups, young families, women’s groups and the like. Though that travel is slowly morphing into events for my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age, the topic of Sabbath is still quite vital and important for lots of you. And that makes me happy. And grateful.

So thank you for reading. In a world crammed with words, your attention is both an honor and a gift.

“If You Don’t Go to Church You Can’t Complain.”

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This morning as I drove home from breakfast with a church member, I caught the last 15 minutes of the Diane Rehm show on NPR. She and her panel were discussing the upcoming midterm elections. One of them shared a recent poll, in which only 15% of respondents said they were “closely following” the midterm elections. Among voters ages 18-29, that number is 5%.

The topic turned to voter turnout, especially among young people. How can we get young people to register and vote? Diane asked, and enlisted each panelist to make his or her best pitch for voting.

Now, I’m not a young adult. (As my friend Jarrett put it, “If you’re happy Apple put the U2 album on your phone, you’re not a young adult anymore.”) And I’m a committed voter. But as I listened to the panelists’ responses, I thought to myself, “There’s no way young adults who aren’t voting will be convinced by these reasons.”

And–of course–I was struck by how similar their reasons were to those reasons we give why young people should be in church.

  • It connects you to a larger community. Guess what? There are many ways to connect with community. Young adults go to work or school, they pay their taxes, many of them volunteer, and many seek to live ethically in how they spend their money and their time. They don’t feel they need to vote/to attend church in order to make a contribution; there are other avenues.
  • It allows you to be “part of the solution.” Don’t like what church has to offer? Get involved. Don’t like your options for governor? If you get involved in the process, and bring your peers along, the candidates will start to respond to issues you care about. But young adults are involved in all sorts of community service and activism. They see themselves as able to amke change. They just do it differently than pulling a lever or showing up on Sunday morning.
  • And they ended with the old saw, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Eh, I don’t know about that. First of all, because for better or worse, we Americans (and others) see complaining as a birthright. That’s why #firstworldproblems is a thing! But also because millenials’ lack of participation is a statement, if we bother to listen. Their silence in our churches and at the polling places is not apathy. It’s a clear message: “This has no relevance for my life whatsoever.” Our job isn’t to convince them otherwise. Our job is to ask, “What if they’re right?”

I’m not telling people not to vote. I mean, come on. It’s a small expenditure of time to do basic research and get yourself to a polling place (though one party wants to make the voter registration process harder, through a variety of tactics designed to alleviate the non-epidemic of “voter fraud”).

There are people out there who will say that both parties are corrupt, and they aren’t that different, so why bother. I am not one of those people. Yes, I’ve never seen such a bunch of do-nothing, gridlocked dysfunction as I do in our nation’s capital, and the day Citizens United was decided was a dark day in our democracy. Still, I vote. In a fallen world, the lesser of two evils is a choice we need to make.

Similarly, I think Christian community provides something distinctive that you don’t get other places. (Other religious communities provide their own distinctives.)

But I can’t exactly fault young people for not being jazzed about deciding there are better uses of their time than choosing between Corporate Candidate Chet and SuperPAC Steve at the ballot box. And let’s not dump on them for not jumping on board with church, when what “church” often means is “the way we’ve always done it… until you’re around long enough for us to trust you to suggest ways we can change.”

The whole Diane Rehm discussion–and the discussion so many churches have–is backward. The question isn’t how to convince young people to show up and vote, or to go to church. The question is, what is it about the “product” that they find utterly un-worth their time?

Why do we frame this as a problem with the millenials and not with ourselves?

~

photo credit: Denise Cross Photography via photopin cc

My Friends Make Stuff: New Book by Christine Chakoian

41fih44oopL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A friend of mine has a new book out! Huzzah!

Chris Chakoian is a pastor in the Chicago area and a colleague on the NEXT Church strategy team. Her new book is Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.

Cryptomnesia is “the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience.” Here’s a bit of the book description:

The world is changing, and it is changing fast. Social media friendships, global commerce, online education, populist uprisings, e-books, and smartphones are just a sample of the Internet’s growing impact on our lives. Americans are rapidly becoming more mobile, worldly, and secular—all while it feels like the church we know is being left behind. Growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” show disinterest in church, and mainline churches fear imminent demise. How do we find a way forward? Ironically, by looking backward.

NEXT Church posted an excerpt from her book a few months ago. Check it out.

And check out the book. This looks like a great, hopeful read for church leaders of all types. Gonna put it on my Goodreads right now.