Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Defining the Opponent

We’re a week away from election day and I don’t know how it is at your house, but my mailbox is being inundated with glossy, oversized postcards. And my phone rings daily, several times, with messages from candidates and requests for funds from political parties. Wow.

The one common characteristic to all the ads is the way they “define” their opponents. I started noticing this word, “define,” several months ago, usually coming from the mouth of one of Obama’s or McCain’s campaign reps on TV.

“Defining” the opponent is quite an ingenious strategy. It appears that the aim is to make the opponent look as bad as possible while staying within the bounds of “factual.” One of my local favorites: the Bluestem Fund (a Kansas thing) is a PAC “defining” a certain local Republican candidate for State Senate. About every other day I’m getting something in my mail from the Bluestem Fund, telling me how awful this candidate is. Just one example: he “voted against funding” for science education. The bottom of the card asserts that this abhorrent action is “fact.”

The issue lurking is Kansas’ infamous fight over how evolution is taught in public schools. In the hopes that you won’t dismiss my criticism of the Bluestem Fund on the assumption that I support their opponent, let me say that I’m not in favor of this Republican candidate’s position on the evolution question. I’m not happy at all that it is even a political issue. I have very strong opinions about what ought to be done on this topic, but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

Back to “defining” a candidate. The Bluestem Fund’s approach is classic: you take a “fact,” rip it from its original historical context and magnify it as much as you can for your political aim. Mix in a little alarmist language about what will happen if so and so gets elected and you have the classic “defining the opponent” slop.

Everyone does it. I’m sickened by it and I promise you, I’m not trying to sound all morally superior. Let’s call “defining an opponent” by what it is: lying. Otherwise honest, decent, hard-working public servants are all doing it. Their campaign advisors are doing it. They should be ashamed, but, more importantly, we should be ashamed that such “defining” works.

Could we get just a little grass roots movement going to demonstrate that we will not be bought so easily with this tactic? We hear again and again that campaigns pull this sort of stunt because it works. So, let me just start with Christian people. We should never, ever, ever, engage in these sophisticated forms of lying for the sake of getting “our” candidate elected. This tactic ultimately demonstrates our lack of faith in a good, sovereign, holy God. No matter who gets elected, there is still a God in heaven…whose eyes are everywhere…who is not surprised by anything.

I’m not advocating political quietism. We should get involved and exercise responsible citizenship. That’s my point: the tactic of “defining” an opponent is rash and irresponsible. Worse, when Christians engage in it, it demonstrates our loss of perspective, our foolishness. It’s not worth the horrible consequence of eating away at truth with de-contextualized “facts.” Let us not sell our birthright for this mess of political pottage. We are contributing to the degeneration of American society. Christians are supposed to be salt and light, not pawnish political hacks.

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October 28, 2008 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | 2 Comments

Why Are We Surprised?

No doubt like you, I’ve been following the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the stock market and listening to the pundits talk about this latest economic crisis. I’ve been amused – in a sickened sort of way – by the finger pointing of political parties and candidates.

In my morning prayer time I started reading Proverbs today. In the opening chapter, “my child” (NRSV), or “my son” (NIV) is instructed to avoid getting involved with friends who will lead him into a life of greedy dissipation. 1:19 says, “Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” The proverb writer thus makes the point that greedy people (who are violent even if they never lift a physical finger against someone) are trapped in their own devices, like a bird caught in a net.

An apt picture, this is. Why, then, are we surprised, when greedy people act greedily?

And what is greed, really? It is an insatiable (never satisfied) appetite for money and material possessions. It is the economic form of sexual lust (a form of sin about which we conservative Christians demonstrate obsessive concern). But of course, this is only a partway definition. The reason greed gets a hold on anyone is because of what a super-abundance of money and material possessions promises: freedom, comfort, pleasure, joy. The promise is a lie. It’s always a lie. It will forever be a lie. How do we stop falling for it?

In the end, greed (like sexual lust) is disordered desire. It is the economic manifestation of Genesis 3: the woman and the man saw the fruit, saw that it was desirable, and believed that it would give them something good that they didn’t yet have. No wonder this story is a classic. We should never be surprised when someone – either the fat-cat Wall Street types or the eighteen-year-old who gets his first credit card and doesn’t know how to handle it – falls prey to this problem.

Because we all have the problem. We should neither be surprised, nor should we be jaded, when Wall Street gets out of whack or when Congress-persons contribute to the problem by over-loosening regulations. It’s pure hypocrisy for anyone, Democrat or Republican or Independent, to point fingers and pretend that they, themselves don’t have the same problem.

Greed tempts us to believe what is not true. It is desire out of whack, like a swollen river exceeding its banks. Disordered desire always gets us in trouble. We are caught in the net of sin – every one of us. Our “caught-ness” manifests itself in different ways, for we are not all tempted by the same things. But we are all tempted.

I just wrote a bunch of stuff you already know. So, why am I writing it? Frankly, because I think Christians, of all people, ought to be able to exhibit (and help to provide) some balance and sensibility during this very heated political season. We ought to have opinions, strong ones, about the best candidates and policies, but we ought not get swept away by the nonsense pumped at us from so many directions. We ought not to be surprised, nor jaded, when we get caught by our own temptations. We thus could be in a better position (rather than playing the stupid politics game) to witness to the One who can redeem us (in more than a merely “spiritual” sense) from the power of sin – economic or otherwise.

Christian people living Christianly – brilliant!

October 21, 2008 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | Leave a comment

Cooling Off, a Little

A commenter on my blog about getting a job (10/11) reminded me of a verse from Ecclesiastes (3:13), “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” Since this statement is all that the commenter left me, I take it to be a gentle criticism of my “worker bee” reference.

I’ll accept this remonstrance. As I think about people who work in technical fields with technical degrees (including my own son) I do not want to create the impression that such jobs are not good, honest labor with their own inherent value. They certainly are. My intent was not to play the elitist and put down technical schools or work, in general. In fact, I want just the opposite.

Rather, I was and still am aiming at the absurd prejudice so prevelant in our society, that the main purpose of going to college is so that you can get that good job. That is not the purpose of college at all. It is, rather, to figure out who you are; to become a thoughtful, wise person. Furthermore, Christian higher education , to which I am committed, is about becoming a mature, fruitful disciple of Jesus Christ. (Perhaps the Bible college mentality is the Christian analogy to technical schools. Now I’m probably in trouble with a different set of people.) Having a job is certainly an important part of being a faithful Christian. But the “technical school” approach to adult life is dangerously short-sighted.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is the old idea of “vocation.” You can get training in a particular skill set and get yourself a good job. But you – a person – are so much more than your job skills. I’d like for every line worker in the country to know and believe this truth deeply about him- or herself. How will anyone know it if all we think a college education does is help people get a good job?

Here’s the irony I find behind my commenter’s gentle criticism: it is at least possible that a college student might actually have to read Ecclesiastes 3 for a class and think about what it means. That action of having to think about something beside just how to work a piece of equipment or solve a mechanical problem (worthy skills, I repeat) is exactly what I’m talking about. I have a hard time imagining that a student in technical school would – as a part of his/her education – ever run into such a reading.

Thus I return to my main concern: wise, thoughtful, people and, more to the point, that kind of Christian populating our society. It is why I reacted so negatively to that newspaper article. We need a broader vision about college than the entrenched technical school mentality and, however people get it, our society needs people who know the difference between sound wisdom and instrumental skill. We are slipping badly on this count.

October 13, 2008 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education | Leave a comment

Yes, But Will It Help Me Get a Job?

It’s Homecoming time at good old Southwestern College, which means I get to talk to some of my “old” students. I love these interactions. For one, these alums make me smile inwardly at their “I’m getting old” remarks. More importantly, they remind me of what I’m doing with my life. I’ll come back to this point eventually.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the Wichita Eagle that just made me mad (yes, I’m still fuming: see my earlier post), although what irritated me was not the main point of the article. The president of one of the technical colleges in Wichita (which feeds the very large local airplane industry) made the offhand remark that he was the “poster child” for getting a college degree and then not being able to find a job. As if getting a job is what a college degree is about! In higher education, there is not a dumber thing that could be said. Statistics regularly demonstrate that practically any bachelor’s degree will get you your first job – except in some of the technical fields. Colleges are not and never have been about dispensing “knowledge,” if by “knowledge” we mean merely instrumental, technical skill. That sort of knowledge is obsolete before one graduates anyway. The main point of that newspaper article, then, is actually a very good one: if you’re interested in a skill to get you a job, by all means, don’t waste your time and money on college! But don’t slam college on the way out the door.

If you want to be more than a worker bee the rest of your life; if you want to be able to do more than just react viscerally to whatever the latest news cycle throws at you; if you want some joy that takes you far deeper than the fleeting pleasure the stuff you can buy can give you; in other words, if you want to be a whole person, then you’d better either figure out how to read serious, weighty, elegant writings on your own and with a group of friends…or you’d better go to college.

Listening to our college alumni reminds me of what I’m doing. I’m not “dispensing information.” (Why do my new students use that word so much?! What is going on in high school that reduces everything to “information?”) I’m introducing students to a way of life: the way of wisdom. And more importantly, as a Christian leader, I am both modeling discipleship and helping them into that cruciform life. And a big part of discipleship is thinking wisely. You absolutely cannot hurry it. Learning how to reflect, to pray, to ponder, to learn the difference between strong opinion and sheer bigotry; to recognize what is true and beautiful and enduring – that(!) is what college is about. This kind of learning is grounded in relationship. It requires community. And that, too(!) is what college is about.

The fact is (yes, it can be empirically demonstrated) that gaining wisdom is hugely practical. But it’s not very fast.

If you’re a parent, pleeeeze don’t tell your child not to major in something because it’s “not very practical.” If you’re a college student, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to major in something in order to get a good job. Figure out who you are! Get a grasp on what is eternally important. Lengthen your vision.

I’ve listened to lots and lots of alumni from our school – people as old as my parents’ generation and as young as the 20-somethings just a fear years out – and I regularly hear a common theme: what really has stuck with them about college and what means so much to them now is not the scintillating lectures that we professors give or the brilliant research papers that they wrote as students. Of course, those things have their place. Nevertheless, as the years go by, what remains of supreme value about college are all the intangibles: the relationships, the conversations, the outside-of-class (even chapel) experiences.

The “will-it-help-me-get-a-good-job?” obsession is vastly over-rated and ultimately counterproductive! Can we imagine this irony? Our grim determination to ensure our future is, once we slow down and look, rather hapless and silly. We’re all going to die. There’d better be much more to life that having that good job. And there is.

October 11, 2008 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education | Leave a comment

What Are We Doing?

As an academic, I fall into that class of people often accused of being eggheads; ivory-tower; bookwormish; all theory and no practice. You know, I can talk, but can I get anything done?

I’m still trying to get over an article I read in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle. It was about the importance of technical schools in our area to provide qualified workers for the various industries. That point is completely legitimate. What got me was a comment made by the president of one of those technical schools. He said that he was the “poster boy” for going to college and getting a degree and then not being able to find a real job. College: what it’s good for?

I, myself, also don’t like the ivory tower mentality. I’m so skittish about the term “scholar” that I often tell people that I’m really a “blue collar scholar.” I love academics, but what I’m really interested in is how scholarship helps life actually to work.

I confess, however, that I wish people paid more attention to what academics generally call for: the discipline of thinking carefully, seriously, and thoroughly. Political campaigns always cause me to think that way (and in this day of the perpetual campaign, our calling for careful thought seems even more timely). Economic crises do also. When the pressure is on, even smart people do and say stupid things. There’s some twisted force within us that causes us to dispense with the measured, the careful, the sensible.

When I see it take place, it makes me ask, what in the world are we doing? When Nancy Pelosi can’t resist sticking her finger in the Republican party’s eye in the very speech she is making to try to win their support for the “bailout” legislation, what is she doing? When Sarah Palin tells the world that she can handle foreign policy because she wakes up every morning and can see Russia, what does she think she’s doing? Can thinking people really swallow these demonstrations? And worse, the partisan sound-bites, the tortured, goofy rationalizations that follow make we want to pull my hair out.

All of a sudden, I sound like the snooty academic, don’t I? Yes, mea culpa. I work with young people (college students) every day. In times like these, I’m acutely aware of the practical value of serious, sustained, careful, nuanced thought. I want my students to practice asking, what are we doing here? What’s going on? I want them not to get jerked around by irrational, partisan politics, nor do I want them to perpetuate it. I want them not to get swept away in anxiety by either alarmist or reactionary language of any kind. I want them to recognize good thinking from bad thinking. Skill in thinking gives confidence in acting, just like it does in practicing and using any other skill.

So, just what are we doing these days? What is happening? What is going on? Does anybody know? We’d better. We need to think about it.

October 2, 2008 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education | Leave a comment