Category Archives: Politics and Culture

The Art and Craft of Not Being a Racist

Thanks to my friend Amy Hemphill for sharing this video, in which Jay Smooth turns a critical (side) eye to the Academy Awards. While this year’s presentation was the most “explicitly political” Oscars ceremony in years, the academy selections and nominees also managed to represent “the most exclusionary, white-ish, dudebro-ish” aspect of Hollywood.

Even if you care nothing for the Oscars, you owe it to yourself to watch this short 5 minute video. Especially if you’ve ever said to yourself, “I can’t be [racist/sexist/homophobic], I’m a good person.”

To that Jay says: There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people.

The message is an especially potent one for those of us in the church, given the ways we both perpetuate the status quo without intending to, AND give ourselves a pass because we consider ourselves to be nice people who mean well.

Watch, think, and learn. And tend to your craft.

Be Bored! Be Brilliant!

I’ve recently discovered the New Tech City podcast, and am liking it a lot. Here are folks who love and use technology and are interested in how it’s impacting our world: “No jargon – just compelling stories about how technology is changing our lives for better and for worse.” A recent episode followed a 16 year old girl living in the NYC suburbs, resulting in the fun and informative 9 Things We Learned about Phones from a Teenager.

The New Tech City folks have a new initiative that starts next week: a project called Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out. And it couldn’t come at a better time for me.

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As I prepare to leave Tiny Church and strike out on my own to write and lead retreats and other events, I’ve been wondering (OK, worrying) about how to keep myself productive and on track. As the New Tech City folks admitted, lots of people make big creative plans only to fritter away the time. It has always been thus, but the Internet makes that much easier.

One part of the answer for me is a part-time writing/editing gig I’m in the process of negotiating (more on that soon). Having a bit of structure will have a ripple effect on the less structured parts of this writing call. (Plus it’s a cool organization with a great mission—I can’t wait to start.)

Another part of the answer: getting a reign on my social media and technology use.

Smartphones and tablets have the potential to eradicate boredom and whittle away our downtime. But the New Tech City folks argue (with neuroscientists and psychologists to back them up) that boredom is an essential part of the creative process. One researcher found that people who were given a boring task (copying numbers from a phone book) were able to come up with lots more and better ideas for solving a simple problem than those who didn’t have this so-called “idle time.”

So far 11,000 people have signed up for the Bored and Brilliant challenge. Phase 1 is currently underway: tracking your smartphone use via specific apps—you can read about on the NTC website. I’ve been using the Moment app for iPhone and I have to admit, it’s not perfect. It tallies up whenever you’re on your phone, but I use my phone for GPS and for work, which skew my results. Still, it’s an illuminating exercise.

Phase 2 will start February 2: a different challenge each day. From their website:

Our big challenge week starts February 2. They’ll be issued via a mini-podcast episode for you every day that week. If you subscribe to the New Tech City podcast, you’ll get the challenges automatically downloaded to your device as soon as they’re ready. Subscribe on iTunesStitcherTuneInI Heart Radio, or via RSS.

Each of those mini-episodes will be short and sweet, explaining the logic behind the day’s challenge, along with some research and/or personal stories to help you achieve your goal in the challenge. We’ll send out an early morning email to keep you in the loop and on track each day that week, and you can (yes, we see the irony) follow along on social media as well.

I’m in. How about you? I’d love to have some company in this boredom challenge! I have no idea what the challenges will be, but if they lend themselves to blogging some reactions, I’ll be here. And yes, as the podcasters admit, there is irony in using technology to reflect on the excesses of technology. Life is marvelously complicated, no?

A Triumph of Robert’s Rules

I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird to Caroline for the past several weeks. We’ve been at it a long time, what with other things happening in the evenings. And Robert’s been reading Ender’s Game, so we alternate nights. It also doesn’t speed things along when I preface each section with a rapturous “Oh I *love* this scene.” The rabid dog… The night before the trial begins…

Anyway. That book, plus a conversation with a friend yesterday about our Presbyterian system of governance (he’s teaching a polity class next semester) reminded me of the following anecdote.

I recently read The Mockingbird Next Door, in which author Marja Mills describes her friendship with Harper and Alice Lee. The book was just OK, but one scene stuck with me.

The Lees’ pastor was describing the turbulent 1960s in which the southern churches were fighting hard over civil rights. At one particular regional meeting of the United Methodist Church, the church was preparing to adopt a committee’s report concerning the scourge of racism and segregation. Of course, the racists and pro-segregationists were threatening to bog the process down with various amendments, speeches and delaying tactics. There they were, clutching their legal pads full of vitriol, and the atmosphere was tense. Then this happened:

Before their leader could get to the floor, a wee woman from Monroeville, Alabama, got the attention of the presiding officer of the conference. Miss Alice Finch Lee went to the microphone to make her maiden speech to the Alabama– West Florida conference of the Methodist Church. Her speech electrified the seven or eight hundred delegates there— I was there. It consisted of five words.

She said: ‘I move the previous question,’ and sat down.

The conference applauded enthusiastically and voted overwhelmingly to support her motion and then adopted the committee report without further debate.

Like a boss.

~

Video: Robert’s Rules in action in a very NSFW clip from The Wire. “Robert’s Rules say we gotta have minutes for the meetin’, right?”

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