Sep 8, 2010

dumbing up

This post about "dumbing up" perfectly summarizes why I'm not blogging much lately. Right now I'm working on spirituality of ignorance. I've dropped out of my theology program for now; I am still seeing Sister Barbara. Here's the winning quote:
[God] loves for me to realize that I can make an “A” on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hear the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.
Dionysius the Areopagite knew this back in the 5th century. In Divine Names he employed "affirmative theology" - i.e., asserting things about God. Immediately corollary to this work is his "negative theology" (or "destructive theology" as Phil might say) work in Mystical Theology - i.e., recognizing that whatever we assert about God is not actually true of God but is only what our best limited comprehension can understand of God - so much banging, clanking and crashing inside our few pounds of gray matter.

Unless and until I can collect and direct my thoughts suitably (i.e., not as a theology paper), this blog will go mostly ignored while I try to live real life with real people.

Aug 17, 2010

separate worlds?

Claiborne has a chapter called Economics of Rebirth with a section called "God's Economy." He adheres to the school of "Sabbath economics" which I'm just exploring and think is interesting. I have a minor in Economics and have been recently interested in the "economics of abundance" as I discovered it from Chris Anderson - first in his book The Long Tail, then in his bloggings about economics of abundance, and then in his next book Free: How Today's Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing.

Given our technology and productivity, I've often wondered what's the minimum hours a person in America would need to work per week to survive. Quantifying 'survival' as poverty-level income as established by the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines yields $10,830. Quantifying 'productivity' as GDP per hour worked from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $55/hour. Factor in a 10% profit for firms and employees' hourly wage could be $50/hour. So, $10,830 / $55 = 217 hours per year. So, as a society, we only need to work 4 hours per week if we want to simply 'survive' - keeping in mind that American 'poverty' measurements typically account for American standards of living (i.e., utilities such as mobile phones, etc.) Truly we live in a society of abundance. So why don't we experience it?

I'm an adherent of Hanlon's razor - "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" or more diplomatically, "never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence." I'm not the zealot of free-market capitalism I once was, nor am I a polemical detractor nor economic revolutionary. So, without discounting the malice of greed that permeates our economy, I'll point out a large economic cost - coordination, generally called 'administrative' cost on income statements. Finding, hiring, training, and equipping the right people, who collect, make, and assemble the right materials into things, and then move those things to the right people - the people who need those things. I think some sociologists (like Claiborne) underestimate this coordination cost or attribute it to malice, and so deride it in works of charity. (Economists may overestimate this coordination cost, or ignore how much of it goes to astronomical salaries for executives.)

Anyway, Claiborne writes, "the social-work model can easily entangle the church in the efficiency of brokering services and resources in a web of 'clients' and 'providers' and struggling to retain God's vision of rebirth, in which we are all family. Faith-based nonprofits can too easily be the mirror image of secular organizations, maintaining the same hierarchies of power and separation between rich and poor. They can too easily merely facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting plenty of professionals in the middle to guarantee that the rich do not have to face the poor and that power does not shift. Rich and poor are kept in separate worlds, and inequality is carefully managed but not dismantled."

I'll offset with a personal example.

Tiffany and I went shopping today for groceries to pack bag meals for a downtown outreach. We go to Sam's and buy the value (i.e., 'efficient') packs, then we put together 20 or 30 bag meals and bring them downtown to an area where we meet some poor and homeless folks to give them food, clothing, and other supplies, and just generally chat and hang out. While shopping today, we talked about our list of what we already had, what we needed to buy, and where we would store everything, when we would pack it all, and how we would schedule our trip downtown tomorrow - our coordination costs. All told I'd say we'll spend about $75 to give out 30 meals or so - $2.50 per meal.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma received a $2 million grant to feed 58,000 families with kids. The boxes we packed looked like they would last for a week of 3-meals-a-day. So assuming 3 family members in each family, that's 63 meals for 58,000 families or 3,654,000 meals for $2,000,000 - $0.54 per meal. Because of their scale, CFBEO's coordination costs are much lower. CFBEO 'merely facilitates the exchange of goods and services' - I will not 'face the poor' to whom they distribute the boxes I packed. And yet, I don't believe it's a bad thing. ;)

Yes, this is crude efficiency. No, I won't stop going downtown to "face the poor." Nor will I stop donating to charities - 'brokers of goods and services.' I believe we should do both. I love others because God loves them. I love that God has given me an incredible job - I'm paid very well to do something I love and something I believe improves the world. I'm a steward of the time and resources God has given me. I'll spend some personally - 'face to face' with the poor downtown; but it will also help His children if I simply donate resources to CFBEO - others who work 'face to face' with the poor.

Tagline: We don't have to live in 'separate worlds' if we live with love for the whole world. I'm sure Claiborne would agree, I just wanted to make the point in support of traditional charities.

Aug 13, 2010

The Suburban Way

I'm finally reading The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. It's a great book of Claiborne's stories and lessons living the Gospel, as he calls it, "The Simple Way." I borrowed the book from my friend Phil who has adopted and embraced the message and practices of New Monasticism in very real and substantial ways. Phil and Claiborne challenge me as I frequently recall my own internal misgivings about what the New Testament has to say about wealth and riches. Challenge is a good thing. This is one of the important things the church does.

Personally, I'm drawn more towards spirituality in good Old Monasticism more than New Monasticism. However, one of Mother Teresa's quotes that Claiborne cites inspires me to make my own serious conscious efforts to love, engage, and identify with the poor, as the New Monastics do.
Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta. - Momma T
I'm a suburbanite, no mistake. There are probably no homeless people within 10 miles of my home. The average annual income in my zip code is $48,444. We own our very nice house (mortgaged), we own 2 nice cars, we enjoy all the typical suburban luxuries - electricity, water, heat & air, mobile phones, a laptop for each of us, digital cable TV, high-speed internet, an xbox, a wii, a clean & safe neighborhood with friendly people all around, even a new porch in our back yard.
Yet I don't know that I am called into New Monasticism any more than I am called into Old Monasticism. Don't get me wrong - I love making trips to the Benedictine Abbey here in Oklahoma. Joining in their spiritual practice just a little makes me a much better disciple of Jesus. But we all recognize and understand that monks are a rare set of men who are called to totally and literally embrace the call to "pray without ceasing" in a special way that not every Christian will live for God.
[If I have any bone to pick with Claiborne, it's when he says he "finally met a Christian" in Calcutta - Andy had been a wealthy businessman in Germany who sold everything he had, gave it to the poor (Lk. 12:33), and moved to Calcutta where he had lived for over ten years with the destitute. I'm not sure if Claiborne implies that others are not "Christian" or just stresses the authenticity of Andy's discipleship. Claiborne does say other "Christians" were "selective fundamentalists" who aren't willing to take Jesus literally on "things like that." I could just as easily say that Protestants aren't willing to take Jesus literally when He said unless we eat His body and drink His blood we have no life in us. (Jn. 6:53) Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics aside, I know far too many sincere Protestant disciples to try to pigeon-hole our Christian authenticity by exegesis. (I went a touch skeptical when Claiborne used Kierkegaard's "The Bible is very easy to understand." quote)]
Anyway, I'm trying to adapt and adopt some practices and disciplines - inspired by The Simple Way, lived here in Suburbia.
  • Share meals at restaurants when you go out - Tiffany and I have started doing this and it's amazing how much money we can save. Also drink water (I only rarely get a beer at restaurants now.) - it's cheaper and better for us anyway.
  • Go out less often - Going out to eat dinner with friends is probably the #1 activity of Suburbia? Instead of a restaurant, have dinner at someone's home. It's more work, but we can save some money. Though maybe not much with gas and the cost of the meal. Which leads to ...
  • Eat simple meals - Phil turned us onto this at Agora. We now have a Simple Sunday Meal™ once a month at Agora. Simple ingredients like rice, beans, and vegetables can feed 50 people for $30 or less. We noticed with our leftovers we were eating simple meals at home the following week and it's a great way to save money and still eat well as a family.
  • Rent a movie instead of going to the theater. Those of us with kids are practically forced to do this anyway, but a dozen friends can watch a $3 rental instead of spending $60 on movie tickets. We have a Netflix subscription so we probably watch a half-dozen movies a month for $10.
  • Add volunteering to hanging out - Phil and I went to the community food bank one night to pack boxes and then we had a couple beers afterwords. It was great, and I want to start doing stuff like that more often and with more of our friends.
  • Most importantly(?), donate the savings to charities that serve the poor. In addition to volunteering, this is the difference between simplifying my lifestyle just to save money and simplifying my lifestyle to help the poor. Eating a simple meal also helps convey some identity of the poor - most of the poor in the world survive on little more than simple rice, beans, and/or vegetables. No Taco Bueno value meals.
These are just some things I've considered as I've lived some of these questions in the last few weeks. What am I missing? What are some other things we can do to live in solidarity with the Gospel message to love the poor - in our own Calcuttas?

Jul 29, 2010

Who will ponder my questions?

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith is divided into three main parts - Look Within the Heart, Look to God in the Book, Look to Others in Community. Chapter 1 of Look Within the Heart asks - "Who will answer my questions?" Nouwen uses the following parable:

Many years ago, there was a young man who searched for truth, happiness, joy, and the right way of living. After many years of traveling, many diverse experiences, and many hardships, he realized that he had not found any answers for his questions and that he needed a teacher. One day he heard about a famous Zen Master. Immediately he went to him, threw himself at his feet, and said: “Please, Master, be my teacher.”
The Master listened to him, accepted his request, and made him his personal secretary. Wherever the Master went, his new secretary went with him. But although the Master spoke to many people who came to him for advice and counsel, he never spoke to his secretary. After three years, the young man was so disappointed and frustrated that he no longer could restrain himself. One day he burst out in anger, saying to his Master: “I have sacrificed everything, given away all I had, and followed you. Why haven’t you taught me?” The Master looked at him with great compassion and said: “Don’t you understand that I have been teaching you during every moment you have been with me? When you bring me a cup of tea, don’t I drink it? When you bow to me, don’t I bow to you? When you clean my desk, don’t I say: ‘Thank you very much’?”
The young man could not grasp what his Master was saying and became very confused. Then suddenly the Master shouted at the top of his voice: “When you see, you see it direct.” At that moment the young man received enlightenment.

The parable is a bit strange; all parables are. I haven't received enlightenment; not by a long shot. The gist of the chapter is "Ask and live the questions" - so even the opening question - "Who will answer my questions?" - must be lived, not answered. I'm trying to do some of that. I made a list of who could simple be present with me as I ponder the questions of my life, without trying to answer my questions for me. My list includes some family, friends, and pastors, and excludes some family, friends, and pastors. My list includes some Catholics, some Protestants, and excludes some Catholics, some Protestants. Some Catholics would too quickly and easily say 'the Church' is the answer to my questions; while some Protestants would too quickly and easily say 'the Bible' is the answer to my questions. The problem with both of these answers is they are not personal. Both the Church and the Bible as personifications of theology and of Truth. The Bible and the Church are institutions of people who lived and live the questions.

Some of my questions right now are:

  • Is there a God?
  • What does God want from me?
  • What is the Church?
  • What is sin?
These are just some questions I ask in 5 minutes of contemplation. None of them have easy answers. Each of them is open to many lifetimes' worth of exploration. Nouwen says, "Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found." I asked "What does God want from me?" on Sunday afternoon. My Monday morning pray-as-you-go reading was Micah 6:8: "You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." And yet this "answer" opens more questions - How do I do right? How do I love goodness? How do I walk humbly with God? These too must be lived.

The other half of that Nouwen quote is, "More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve." And so I go on personifying and living my questions - these questions and others. I am eager to ponder and live my questions with others, but not with those who might dictate my life with easy or simple answers.

Jul 20, 2010


I'm seeing a spiritual director now. Sister Barbara Austin is a Benedictine Nun from the St. Joseph Monastery here in Tulsa. I spent one hour with her last week. I'm sad I waited years to see a spiritual director. In that one hour I started seeking God better than all of the time I've spent studying theology.

I told her I was taking theology classes towards a bachelor's degree, and that I struggle with my studies and with theology - not just intellectually but emotionally and, yes - spiritually. Most of the time, I am like the RAF officer who approached Lewis at one of his theological lectures:
I've no use for all [this] stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal.
I've blogged about Lewis's theology map metaphor. I want to explore this metaphor more and more.

Sister Barbara gave me a copy of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. I read it quickly in a day, and I'm now re-reading it slowly and doing the spiritual exercises. (Writing is part of it, so blog posts may pick up here for a while.) The first chapter is titled, "Who will answer my questions?" and it is even more quotable than Lewis!
  • ... we need to live the questions of our lives ...
  • Most of the time we respond to questions from below with answer from below. The result is often more confusion.
  • Once pain or confusion is framed or articulated by a question, it must be lived rather than answered. The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch your own struggles, doubts, and insecurities - in short, to affirm your life as a quest. Your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide.
  • Painful questions must be raised, faced, and then lived. This means that we must constantly avoid the temptation of offering or accepting simple answers, to be easy defenders of God, the Church, the tradition, or whatever we feel called to defend. Experience suggests that such glib apologetics animate hostility and anger, and finally a growing alienation from whom or what we are trying to defend.
  • Without a question, an answer is experienced as manipulation or control. Without a struggle, the help offered is considered interference. And without the desire to learn, direction is easily felt as oppression.
  • Living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge and understand, skills to control, and power to conquer. In spiritual listening, we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden no in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.
  • When God enters into the center of our lives to unmask our illusion of possessing final solutions and to disarm us with always deeper questions, we will not necessarily have an easier or simpler life, but certainly a life that is honest, courageous, and marked with the ongoing search for truth. Sometimes, in living the questions, answers are found. More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in solitude, the questions simply dissolve.
One powerful aspect of religion-as-map is, "... if you want to get anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America." This may be the first time I try to augment Lewis, but this metaphor doesn't capture that the "anywhere" we're trying to reach is God - an infinite destination. In that sense, no theology - no matter how accurate - can really represent the reality of the destination. Theology can only represent the journeys - the quests - of others who have lived the questions.

So, when I study theology, I must not make it solve problems. Studying theology moves me closer to Truth not when I cling to answers, but when I uncover the map of deeper questions pointing to God. I'm hoping and praying that spiritual direction and discipline will provide me with the compass I need on my journey of living the questions.

Jun 10, 2010


I call myself a post-modern, but I've never really known what Modernity is or was. I still don't fully know - I don't think I ever fully know anything. For this post I'm talking about modernity as Fr. Robert Barron defines it - i.e., modernity as subjective and rationalistic, "privilege of the self" approach to seeking Truth (Descartes' "I think therefore I am" ground and ratification of truth) and the Nietzschean "categories of power" paradigm by which we view and evaluate the world. These concepts are way above me, so I won't even try to address them directly. I'm better at stuff like video games. ;)

As luck would have it, there's a video game that has addressed these issues. I watched a series of playthrough videos for a game called BioShock. The whole thing took at least 8 hours to watch; here's the 5m intro:

Andrew Ryan represents a modernity as articulated by Ayn Rand - individualistic, anarcho-libertarian capitalism. Unfortunately, IMO, too many contemporary Christians lean towards, if not fully embrace, this kind of political and socioeconomic attitude. BioShock does a fantastic job exploring natural consequences of this kind of ideology. Furthermore, it presents and demonstrates how modernist fundamentalism corrupts other related human endeavors; it does so with a smart use of characters and their interpersonal conflicts.

Brigid Tenenbaum is a genetic scientist who moves to Rapture (Ryan's underwater Utopian city) and discovers a kind of genetic super-stem-cell called ADAM that allows people to rearrange their cells however they wish (including some wicked super-powers that you use while playing the game). When the commercial research centers refuse to fund her research, she turns to a mob-boss, Frank Fontaine, who directs her research towards manufacturing ADAM as an addictive drug. The population of Rapture demands more and more ADAM, and Tenenbaum devises a way to mass produce ADAM using the bodies of young girls - Little Sisters as they are called in the game.

Dr. Steinman is a surgeon in Rapture who uses ADAM to treat patients. You find his personal journals which perfectly portray the descent down the modernist slippery slope from theoretical to abominable:

  1. Ryan and ADAM, ADAM and Ryan... all those years of study, and was I ever truly a surgeon before I met them? How we plinked away with our scalpels and toy morality. Yes, we could lop a boil here, and shave down a beak there, but... but could we really change anything? No. But ADAM gives us the means to do it. And Ryan frees us from the phony ethics that held us back. Change your look, change your sex, change your race. It's yours to change, nobody else's.

  2. ADAM presents new problems for the professional. As your tools improve, so do your standards. There was a time, I was happy enough to take off a wart or two, or turn a real circus freak into something you can show in the daylight. But that was then, when we took what we got, but with ADAM... the flesh becomes clay. What excuse do we have not to sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done?

  3. I am beautiful, yes. Look at me, what could I do to make my features finer? With ADAM and my scalpel, I have been transformed. But is there not something better? What if now it is not my skill that fails me... but my imagination?

  4. When Picasso became bored of painting people, he started representing them as cubes and other abstract forms. The world called him a genius! I've spent my entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again: the upturned nose, the cleft chin, the ample bosom. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could do with a knife what that old Spaniard did with a brush?

  5. Steinman: Four-oh silk and ...done.

    Nurse: The nose looks terrific, Doctor Steinman ...Doctor?

    Steinman: You know, looking at her now... I didn't realize how much her face sags... Scalpel...

    Nurse: Excuse me?

    Steinman: Scalpel!

    Nurse: Uh, doctor, she's not booked for a face lift...

    Steinman: Let's just come in here and... *starts whistling*

    Nurse: Doctor... Stop cutting... Doctor, stop cutting... Get me the chief of surgery! Get me the chief of surgery NOW!!!

  6. Not only are those little girls veritable ADAM factories, they're nearly indestructible. They regenerate any wounded flesh with stem versions of the dead cells. But their relationship with the implanted slugs is symbiotic... if you harvest the slug, the host will die. "So you see, it's not like killing," Tenenbaum said. "It's more like removing a terminal patient from life support."

As Rapture's population increases, botanist Julie Langford is recruited to create an oxygen-producing garden. She is so fixated on her plants and her task that she doesn't even notice the whole population of Rapture falling into madness. The artist Sander Cohen is similarly impassive to the deaths and suffering of others. He worked closely with Ryan to recruit people to Rapture. Like Steinman he's driven insane by plasmids and by a self-obsession with his own art. Which leads me to why I enjoyed this game so much, and am writing so much about it.

While BioShock is categorically a Sci-Fi First-Person Shooter, it tells a story that, in my opinion, levels a sharp and brilliant criticism against modernity. Whether it's Ryanism, Fontaine's hedonism, Steinman's perfectionism, Langford's environmentalism, or Cohen's subjectivism, they all fundamentally privilege the self(-interest) over and above the other. Ethics, morality, temperance, compassion - all are subjective to the individual. We see this everywhere in our contemporary modern world - from unabridged capitalism, to unrestrained scientific research, to indulgent lifestyles, to moral relativity. BioShock warns most strongly against the modernist approach to genetics, but the whole of modernity stands appropriately exposed for its dangerous potentialities.

What's more the game forces the player to make an objective moral decision through-out the game. It stands in such stark contrast to the subjective chaos of the rest of the game, that when I saw it the first time I cringed inwardly at the thought of it; something that would be hard to do with a book. I would put BioShock right up there with 1984 and Brave New World as an engaging, critical, and prophetic assessment of modernity.

May 17, 2010

"Christian" Music II

Welcome to the soundtrack edition of "Christian" Music. In my last post about "Christian" music I wrote about some songs that are not intentionally Christian but carried a sense of Christian perspective. This time I'm looking at a couple songs that are intentionally Christian, but are contextually not so. Here's what I mean ...

Civilization 4 Soundtrack: "Baba Yetu" by Christopher Tin.

When you first fire up the Civilization 4 video game, you hear this song and it's pretty powerful. Mark, Matt and I loved this song from the first time we got Civilization 4 home for what would be many all-night Civ sessions. We never knew until years later(?) that it is a Swahili adaptation of the Lord's Prayer by Chris Kiagiri.

I remember reflecting on it later as one of those powerful times we experience God in the world where we don't expect Him. A personal example of "finding God in all things" as in Ignatian spirituality.

Gladiator Soundtrack: "Now We Are Free" by Lisa Gerrard.

Lisa herself said about the lyrics: "I sing in the language of the Heart. Its an invented language that I've had for a very long time. I believe I started singing in it when I was about 12. Roughly that time. And I believed that I was speaking to God when I sang in that language. Now I am filled with the Holy Ghost, that is the promise in the Bible the Church will not talk about, because this secret would mean the fall of the religion."
There's some anti-(Catholic)-church attitude in her words - fair enough; I have my own dissent with the Church at times too. In my experience, the Church has a somewhat open mind about this though - at least here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I've tempered my fervor over "speaking in tongues" as empowered by the Holy Spirit from my more pro-Pentecostal upbringing, but I don't know that I've lost all my faith in the experience. Paul cautions against preaching "in tongues" in the assembly without interpretation, and for good reason - it can be wacky and disorderly.

But when I hear this song I don't get the sense that it's the kind of "infantile babbling", "incoherent exclamations", or "pythonic utterances" the Church obliges us to reject. Do you? I came across someone's personal interpretation which I thought was really cool. Breathed straight by the Holy Spirit? I dunno. But I think it captures a lot of the essence of this song. Gladiator itself has some strong messages that fit the Christian perspective, and I think almost everyone who hears this song feels at least something real and stirring in it.

What other soundtrack songs am I missing?