Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Identity and Acceptance

Sometime around 1985, if I remember correctly, in the middle of my seminary tutelage, I had a conversation with a fellow student that has stuck with me over the years.  I include the date so that the reader will know just how long this topic has been on my mind, not to mention how long we’ve been discussing it publicly.

I cannot remember how the subject of sexuality came up.  We were in the middle of a peer review of a paper, a student discussion led by a faculty member.  I was the one in the hot seat that day.  I had not written about sexuality, so I don’t remember how or why the subject arose.  But I do remember this comment from my fellow student, an out lesbian (which I knew before this moment).  She said to me, “If you don’t accept my sexuality, you don’t accept me.”

I have heard or read this claim dozens of times since that day.  As I said last week, I hate writing about sexuality because it is so personal, so painful, especially right now.  I feel a growing alarm about statements I hear and read, so, once again, I feel I must say something.  And I want to analyze this claim, that if I do not “accept” (I use scare quotes for a reason, which will become evident in a moment) someone’s sexuality, then I don’t “accept” her or him.

First, let’s recognize the statement for what it is – a truth claim.  In other words, this person was not, at that moment anyway, describing her experience or simply offering her take on the matter.  She was making a claim that had direct bearing on my view.  More pointedly, her opinion was a judgment of my opinion, pure and simple.

Now, let me tell you why I’m alarmed.  In the current popular hostilities, “not accepting” seems increasingly to mean “hate.”  The if-then logic goes like this: if I don’t accept your sexuality, then I hate you.  This is a huge and dangerous jump – for everyone.  And there is a similarly ominous corollary claim: if you hold a “traditional” view of sexuality and marriage, even if you don’t engage in hate speech or do anything actively to oppose gays and lesbians, etc., you still are guilty of helping to maintain a threatening heterosexist system tantamount to the Anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  And we all know how that ended.  Peter Gomes makes this very claim in his book, The Good Book.

There are a number of angles to take on this most difficult of conversations and I’m going to try to offer some coherent thought, without being able to take the space to go step by step on everything I’m thinking.  (This blog is already much longer than I prefer.)  Let me also readily acknowledge that I could be wrong.  But here is my first point: I can be wrong in my thinking about your understanding of yourself, your identity, and your behavior (in one class of behaviors – sexual), but being wrong in my opinion about how you understand and present yourself is not the same as my lack of esteem and love for you.  They are two different sets of thoughts.  I can still like you very much, affirm your right to live as you please and disagree with your understanding of yourself.  I may just be wrong about you while still esteeming you.  So, it seems to me at the start, that claiming that my being wrong is the same as hating you is a plain non sequitur.  And a dangerous one because it breeds suspicion and fear.  There is an irony at work here that I would love to comment on, but I’ll have to leave it at that.

Now back to my fellow-student’s claim.  Let’s think of “identity” and “sexuality” as two circles.  In her comment, she seems to be saying, without actually stating it this way, that the circle of who she is and the circle of her sexuality are the same.  There is an exact proportional identity.  In some sense, it seems, “identity” and “sexuality” completely co-inhere.  The implication follows that there is therefore no conceptual room for me to think about my fellow student in any other way.  And if I do, it must be because I am motivated by something sinister and morally wrong – an irrational fear (homophobia) or something like it.

I think the position I just sketched is an extremely difficult one to sustain and support.  There is far more to a person than sexuality.  (At the least we ought to be able to have a respectful discussion about this point!)  We all know people who do not want to be limited in their identity in this way.  They own their sexuality without problem, but they are also competent professionals and colleagues, neighbors joining us for cookouts and sports fans and musicians and a host of other qualities that make them who they are.  They want to live in freedom and dignity, but they don’t want to make an issue of their sexuality.

So, you see, I think I really can disagree with someone’s claim on (what look to me like) good logical grounds and I can still love that person very much.  In fact, I do.  When discussing other topics, this is obvious and we all know it.  Whether I love someone or not has little to do with how I evaluate a statement that person makes.  Why, then, do we seem unable to apply this same logic to our discussions about sexuality?

Now I come to the meaning of the word “accept” used above.  Remember, the claim I’m working with here is that if I don’t accept someone’s sexuality, I don’t accept that person.  It seems to me that “accept” in this statement actually means that I must morally affirm and agree with that person’s sexual self-understanding.  Or, to say it this way, it appears that”sexuality” and “identity” mean the same thing.  Part of the difficulty with this claim is that it trades on an understanding of “accept” that, so far as I can tell, we do not use in any other situation.  The truth is, we very commonly accept one another without agreeing with one another on all manner of other issues. If sexuality is that different, such that we must dramatically alter how we use language around it, then someone needs to help me understand what makes sexuality that different.

You might object that I’m not taking account of bias or subjective feelings, etc.  Of course I am.  I’m fully aware of my biases and I know that language has power and talking about “logic” has its own power dimension, as if appealing to “logic” somehow makes my thoughts more important and impact-ful.  Yes, language has power, but one of the reasons it has power is because it helps us talk about what we believe to be true and real.  Again, I wish people saw the irony, but apparently we don’t.

You’ll notice that, even though I am a Christian, I have not mentioned the Bible once.  Part of my agonizing over the raw public animosity is how much time we waste arguing back and forth about what the Bible does or does not say.  It is a legitimate concern to search the scriptures, but there are quite a few other questions besides just what the Bible says that we Christians need to engage if we really want to have a serious, respectful and substantive discussion.  Can we please stop using the Bible as a tool in the culture wars?

So, I come back to my major concern: the either-or logic that demands either full approval or hateful rejection and possible violence.  Let me say it again: I could be wrong in my thinking about sexuality.  Off and on since 1985, I’ve been reading, thinking, praying, listening and talking.  And I still am.  I have two books on my desk right now, written and edited by serious scholars, gay men in long-term relationships.  One is a historical study and the other deals with theoretical questions about sexual identity.  (By the way, so far I’ve read much more in these books about “desire” than I have about “identity.”  Even among those who fully support gay marriage and easily affirm same-sex activity, the term “identity” is apparently a challenge to understand.)  But even if I’m wrong – even if I just “don’t get it,” it is still a dangerous, destructive jump to conclude that I therefore must hate gay people.

Finally, not one thing I’ve written in this blog actually says anything about what I think about sexuality per se.  I know that you can scour through my comments and read between the lines and draw your own conclusions.  But be very careful when you do.  You might be wrong.  My sole purpose in this post has been to focus on one of the problems I think I see in how we talk about the issue.  That’s it.

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August 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | 24 Comments

Don’t Make Me Make that Choice

With everything in me, I don’t want to write this post.  But given the Chik-Fil-A controversy and, more broadly, the constant attention to same-sex-related topics in the news, on Facebook, and basically everywhere I turn in daily life, I feel I must.  Fair warning: there is more heat in this post than I’d like.  And my words won’t be as “worked out” as I’d like.  But I am pleading for a little bit of sanity and charity.  So I’m sticking my neck out and my nose in.

To try to keep the aim of my post in focus, let me lay down a couple of qualifications.  Right now, my attention is on the so-called progressive anger at Chik-Fil-A and at the unwise, unguarded and foolish statements of people like Rahm Emanuel.  I want anyone who might wonder about my intentions, however, to understand that I’m not any happier with the way the conservative culture warriors go at this issue, either.  When First Baptist Church, Dallas, puts “Gay is not OK” on the sign out in front of their building, they are contributing to the problem rather than the solution.  They made a political statement, not a pastoral one.  It was a slogan, a sound bite.  I’m not saying that people at First Baptist are horrible, awful people.  They are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I’m just trying to say that putting a slogan on a church sign on such a sensitive topic is a foolish and clumsy and potentially (at the very least) cruel way of operating.

But as I said, I’m more concerned at this moment with the either-or thinking that attends the Chik-Fil-A controversy.  Apparently, we -the public – have two options.  We can either get on board with full, unqualified approval of same-sex activity, including and especially gay marriage or we can be smoked out into the bright light of day as the bigots and haters that we evidently are.

Are these my only options?  Really?  Don’t make me make that choice.

Please don’t set up the false dichotomy, the “either-or” of unreserved approval or unqualified condemnation.  These are not the only two choices.

The truth is, most of us don’t know exactly what we think about same sex attraction, sexual identity, same sex marriage and any other of the numerous related topics.  We have opinions, yes, but we’re not 100% sure of our opinions.  Most people just want to get along, be good neighbors.  Most people don’t want anyone to suffer.  We want people to lead good and productive lives.  Gay, bi-, trans-, straight, whoever.   We can’t stand slurs, sick jokes, or bullying.  Whatever we think about moral questions and policy matters, we want peaceful relations and fairness for all.  Our hearts are torn.  We have opinions and we know those opinions in some ways “go against” people we love.

If you call yourself a progressive and you simply cannot possibly understand why anyone like a Dan Cathy (or me) might think the way he does, then instead of calling for his head, listen.  You may think you have science and rationality on your side.  And you may.  You may think that you understand civil and human rights better than the rest of us.  And you may.  But you also may not. You may not know everything there is to know about sexuality.  Or morality.  Or how to think about them.  You might actually learn something by listening to your opponents.  (I know, conservatives need to do the same thing.  But stay on point here for a minute.)  It’s time for a little epistemic humility from the progressives – the noisy ones, at least.

I deplore and repudiate hatred toward anyone.  But I also do not believe that the only compassionate conclusion regarding same sex activity is unqualified approval.  That very thought puts me at ideological odds with people whom I love deeply, closely.  But don’t you dare say that I’m homophobic, or that I’m guilty of bad motive, or that I’m just not well-informed enough.

Do not patronize, demonize or politicize.  Don’t make me make a dangerous and false choice between two phoney options.  Don’t make me make that choice.  I won’t do it.

August 3, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | 2 Comments

And Now, for My Own Bigotry

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 19:24).  This comment came on the heels of his conversation with the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully, deciding he could not follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms.

There is a lot more going on in this story than the usual morality tale we get about wealth and the Christian life.  First, the disciples were shocked, perhaps because they associated wealth with divine blessing (as some of the Proverbs suggest) and here Jesus is turning that belief on its head: wealth is a burden, a temptation, maybe a curse, not necessarily a sign of divine favor.

So, in a strange mental reversal, this saying of Jesus actually prompts me to recognize my bigotry about the wealthy.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I am worried about how we United Methodists  talk and think almost entirely in categories. Not just us United Methodists, of course, have this problem, but this is a family squabble I’m trying to have.  I complained that categories tell us not much about each other.  Now it’s time for me to admit my own use of categories.

As I mentioned, I grew up poor and, try as I might, I feel a little unsteady and self-conscious around wealthy people.  I feel that dirt under my fingernails feeling, like maybe one of “them” is looking at me as if I don’t belong, as if I’m not quite as good as…  If I don’t watch my soul, that feeling of unease can turn to resentment.  I’m ashamed of it.

Resentment is a feeling people seem to have in abundance these days.  Just think about how we talk about “the 1%.”  As if somehow they have money that really belongs to us; as if they have stolen it from us.

Therefore, to complicate things, let’s go for a little cyber ride.  A Wall Street Journal blog from June 2011 tells us that we have a record number of millionaires (based on net worth) in the USA (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2011/06/22/u-s-has-record-number-of-millionaires).  Hah!  Just as we suspected.  More telling, in 2011, the number of billionaires was on the rise, as well.

But then, a year later we have this article from CNN, reporting that the net value of millionaires has been declining (http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/01/news/economy/american-millionaires/index.htm).  Likewise, this year (2012) the number of actual millionaires has declined in the USA (http://moneyland.time.com/2012/06/05/number-of-millionaires-in-u-s-decreases-but-spikes-worldwide).  Worldwide the rich are getting richer.  But not that many and even among the wealthy, some are losing.

For starters, then, I must keep in mind that not all that many people inhabit the category “wealthy.”  Closer to home, I have to admit that the comfortable household income my wife and I now enjoy – though numerically far distant from the millionaire category – puts me materially much closer to “wealthy” than I’d ever like to admit.  I therefore have absolutely no right somehow to make “the wealthy” culpable in a way that I am not.  How do you spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?

Now, anyone with a net worth of million dollars or more obviously has many more options than most people, so we don’t have to worry too much about them.  Again, my point is not at all to justify getting rich.  I’m trying to think about how my lumping people into a category – “the rich” – does no one any good.  Hence, these articles loosen up my prejudice…a little.

Now, let’s move somewhat toward the other end of things.  Consider this article from Time, “Do We Need $75,000 to be Happy?”  (Meaning $75,00 for a yearly income.)  (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html).  According to this story, $75,000 buys a degree of well being that we associate with happiness.  Once a person gets to the $75,000 threshold, that feeling of financial stress dissipates and a sense of stability and well being ensues.  It does not mean that people falling below this amount are sad.  It just means that what we call “happiness” has a quantitative reference point.

That’s quite a gap – between a net worth of a million and making $75,000 a year.  It turns out, piling up mountains of money does not add to one’s happiness.

So, in a way that I think we do not often consider, Jesus tells us much more about being wealthy in this parable than typically we notice.  The non-wealthy should not resent the wealthy.  And the wealthy should pay attention to what wealth might do to them.

I’m as close to being a bigot when it comes to the way I think about the wealthy as when I think about anything.  And perhaps strangely, it is this very saying of Jesus that helps me to notice this my flaw.

June 12, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Retching Has to Do with Moral Vision

(Warning: this blog contains graphic material not suitable for weak stomachs.)

Since when did watching people vomit become funny?

I admit, I do not watch these TV shows, so maybe it was just a coincidence. Last week, I watched my first episode of “Campus PD” on one of the cable channels. I have known about the show for some time, but since I work with college students, I frankly could not bring myself to watch it. Last week I worked up the courage. A couple of days later, I happened on “Tosh.0” (I think is the name).

Of course, with “Campus PD,” the viewers were regaled by a constant barrage of drunk college kids. In one scene, two young men are sitting, completely stupefied, on the curb (kerb, if you are an Anglophile) outside a hotel. Both of them have vomit between their feet.

A couple of days later, I just happened to be passing by “Tosh.0” as I channel surfaced and witnessed another scene involving someone puking. This time it was a guy in the buddy position of a hang glider. Apparently, he wasn’t taking too well to the ride. The host, Mr. Tosh, played and replayed the emetic episode, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment. Do his viewers really enjoy this fare?

I’ve seen similar things on “Jackass.” Please remember, I do not watch any of these shows. In each case, I happened upon them as I was passing on to somewhere else in Cable World. I thus conclude that, if I see this much vomiting on television in such brief moments, they must be happening quite a bit. And somebody must think it’s funny.

Some of us who work in the university have been reading a book, lately: Getting Wasted, by sociologist and college professor Thomas Vander Venn. In describing the various kinds of motives and means of social support that college students give one another while engaging in binge drinking, he reflected on how students describe even being hung over together as “fun” or “a good time.” He also mentioned one study in which neophyte pot smokers had to learn how to enjoy the sensation of being high, then alluded to the same pedagogical principle at work among college drinkers.

In other words, the “fun” associated with being drunk or high is in some significant ways, a learned behavior. You can learn that vomiting and passing out is actually fun. Hm.

Most importantly, what we’re not noticing is the implicit moral community associated with such fun. In interviews with Vander Venn, students explained repeatedly that having fun and good times is supremely important, worth the risks and consequences of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. They actually experience a kind of community, through the “drunk support” (his term) and consequence management associated with college party scenes.

Here’s the moral dimension: Students who believe this kind of behavior is “fun” and “good times,” are committed to what they perceive as a good – the pleasure, sociability and feeling of community that goes with the party scene. It goes with what Robert Bellah and other scholars have described as “expressivist individualism:” that “being myself,” no matter what anyone thinks and “following my own dreams” and “doing what feels right to me” are paramount. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from students. They actually say that they “do not care” what other people think. Of course, they do care, but they have been taught (subtlely, of course) to think that they shouldn’t care. Notice the ought in “shouldn’t.”

Another way to notice the moral vision of this behavior: how often do we talk with students about peer pressure? What is peer pressure, but moral pressure? “It’s fun. Come on! Don’t be a loser!” We need to notice the moral tone, perverse as it seems.

So, students believe that cutting loose, having fun, getting wasted, is a good. It is one that they fight to keep. They believe in the freedom associated with partying. They are in college. It is “their time.” Again, notice the moral vision.

If you’d like to look at this matter in some detail, see Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially the chapter, “Intoxication‘s Fake Feeling of Happiness.” It’s pretty sobering stuff.

November 8, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Backsides are Showing

I don’t know whether to feel encouraged or discouraged.  Maybe a little of both.

Because of my work (and my interest), I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education online.  I try to keep up on news and trends “in the industry,” but I also like to see what the bloggers are blogging.

The bloggers on the site are mostly well-known scholars in their academic disciplines.  They write about current concerns and cutting-edge issues.  Like blogging is supposed to do, they stimulate debate and provoke comments.

Blogging is thus about stating opinions.  It’s like the op-ed page of the newspaper.  It ought to pithy and provocative.  By design, then, it’s looser and more free-wheeling than the usual scholarly writing.  I rather like the moxey of many of the writers, even the swashbucklers.  I enjoy the alliteration, the catchy turn of phrase, the well-played irony, the playfulness, the wit.  I enjoy the pointed give-and-take that goes with the territory and I respect people who enter the fray with a little swagger.

Alas, academics are often no better than “normal people” at having a fair and open argument.  I know this is no big surprise, but it is discouraging, nonetheless.  That’s because argument is a big part of what academics are supposed to do.  Because we are engaged in helping students become well-educated, we ought to engage in pointed back-and forth.  We are supposed to demonstrate both courage and skill in analyzing arguments (exposing silly or spurious ones and showing why others are strong).  We (and students) must have the guts to stick our necks out and evaluate.  Which means more than just stating an opinion.  It means not making nice.  So it can get a little brutal at times.

Still, we also should have the moral restraint and the self-awareness to recognize our own biases and maintain an openness to people who disagree with us.  We should not attribute bad motive or benighted obstinance to other people, even if we suspect that they are.  I might be paranoid, but even paranoids can make good arguments.

The Chronicle blog that I read today and some of the comments that follow largely fail on this scale.  Some of the comments got nasty and personal.  As I said, no big surprise.  Academics are people, after all, and we all can get carried away and say things we later wish we would either not have said or said differently.  In this sense, it’s encouraging to realize that academics are just people.  With the trappings of academe, we can forget this simple truth.

But, on the other hand, it’s very discouraging.  The sneering, snarky, back-and-forth fails to hold true to what academics say they are about.  This failure is the academic hypocrisy akin to the preacher (I get a double whammy here: I’m both an academic and a preacher) who manifests the maddening “do as I say, not as I do” inconsistency.  There are plenty of examples – because it’s become like a favorite parlor game – of preachers to take aim at, pointing out the moral failings of those who presume to be moral guides.  Our pop culture loves to expose the inconsistencies of vocal (sometimes obnoxious) well-known Christian leaders.

Maybe even more discouraging is that few people in popular culture ever notice this bad behavior, because what academics say, write and do happens behind closed doors, out of the public light.  Which is to say, it’s pretty much irrelevant.

August 8, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture | , , | Leave a comment

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hail, Oscar!

I just watched Oscar Pistorius run a 46.33 400 meter race at the Prefontaine Classic.  If you don’t follow the sport of track and field (and not many people do), these numbers probably mean nothing to you, but it is truly astounding. 

The world record for the men’s 400 meter race is, I think, 43.18, still held by Michael Johnson.  It is has stood for several years.  Pistorious’ time is a full 3 seconds slower.  And in the race I just watched him run, he finished dead last.  But he was only about a second off the winning time.

So, why am I going on and on about Oscar Pistorius?  He is a double amputee running against world-class athletes who have all their parts.  Pistorius (obviously) runs with prosthetic devices, high-tech, specially designed “feet.”  The technology is impressive, of course, but still, to run with the world’s fastest without the same feeling (through the feet) that other world-class athletes have is nothing short of mind-boggling. 

Ironically, some worry that his specially-designed “feet” give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.  I never was a great athlete, but I did compete in high school and I have some sense about what it feels like to run races.  While other racers are “feeling” the track through their feet, Pistorius “feels” the track somewhere near his knees.  Imagine running as hard as you can without feeling your feet.  Even with high-tech running devices, imagine trying to run fast without feeling the timing of “pushing off” with the balls of your feet and your toes.     

Perhaps even more impressive was the humility and grace with which he spoke to the interviewer after the race.  He said repeated how blessed he felt and how grateful he was to be given the opportunity to compete on this stage.  He admitted that, as he made the first turn of the 400 meters, rather than concentrating on his race he found himself thinking how blessed he was to be racing against the world’s best.    It was simply amazing. 

In the paralympic world, Pistorius is a triple world champion in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, he holds the world record in each race (you should read the article and see the resistance he has received to running against able-bodied runners, which makes his gracious attitude even more impressive).  But on any field, he is a stupendous athlete. 

His talent is obvious, certainly, but his character, his courage, his persistence challenges me.  Oh, how it challenges me.

June 4, 2011 Posted by | General, Pop Culture | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Worried about Sex, Again

They call it “gender neutral housing,” an ironic term, since it’s anything but gender neutral.   According to the news accounts I’ve read, Rutgers University is trying a pilot project the coming Fall semester in which students can choose roommates of either sex.  In this new arrangement, people will be able to live with their partners (gay or straight) or have roommates of the same or opposite sex based on any other consideration they choose.  As a guy, I could choose a female roommate who is not my girlfriend, or she could be my girlfriend.  As a guy, I could choose a guy who is my boyfriend, or not.  Any way is OK.

The appeal for this change came from the GLBT community and, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense.  It allows for the expression of the most equitable roommate arrangements with regard to as wide a range of sexual expressions as possible.  I see their point, but I’m worried about other consequences.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, has studied and written about emerging adult sexuality and, if you’re any kind of Christian (liberal or conservative; pick any label you wish) his findings should be a matter of concern.  (To get a sample of his work, go to www.changingsea.org/regnerus.php.)  One study shows that only 16% of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 have not had sexual intercourse.  In the same age group, among those who are romantically involved, only 6% are not having sex of some sort.

As Regnerus points out, this news is really not new news.  In fact, most of us who work with young adults are sick of hearing about it, because we feel 99% hopeless that we can change these statistics.  Aside from the occasional sex-and-dating stuff that some campus ministers still try to do, we have largely abdicated this field.

But the idea that there is not a cost for this approach to sex among college students (to limit my emerging adulthood reference to my work context) is false and dangerous.  And I’m not merely talking about the utilitarian consequences (e.g. STDs) of sexual activity.  I am talking about the emotional/spiritual wounds.

(At this point in the blog, I feel the need to say, “I’m not a prude.  This post is not about pining away for some purer, simpler time, nor is it a right-wing diatribe.”  There, I feel better.)

Another author has written of the “no regrets” mantra of young people (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition).  In interviews, young people, after describing some of the most painful, heartrending experiences, commonly say something like, “But I have no regrets.  It (the painful experience) has made me what I am today.”  Many of the “its” have to do with sexual activity leading to unhealthy relationships, unwanted pregnancies and a list of other collateral damages.  It starts with sex, but it does not end there.

Back to Regnerus: serial monogamy is the thing.  Students are generally not promiscuous.  The free love days are long gone.  They still want to get married (even though they’re marrying much later than earlier generations).  They have one partner at a time and they still have a sense of loyalty and boundaries while in that relationship.  But virtually all are having sex with that partner.  Sexual intercourse.  So, it turns out that sex still is more than just recreational.  It’s relational.  And when the relationship breaks up, it can be and usually is soul-searingly painful.

So, rather than just going with the democratic flow, like Rutgers has done, I think it’s high time for colleges and universities to re-examine our housing practices.  I know.  We are not in loco parentis, but I think this excuse is really a dodge.  We in higher education are held responsible in a million other ways for our young charges, even though we’re supposed to stay the heck out of their private lives.

I don’t have an answer, but I see the problem and we in higher education need to start talking about it.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Pony Excess” Forgot Part of the Story

It is the morning of the Lord’s Day and my mind ought to aim elsewhere, hence I’m feeling a little sheepish about this blog.  But last night’s ESPN 30-30 documentary about SMU, called “Pony Excess,” is still on my mind.

I’m a relative newcomer to SMU, but have quickly become a fan.  I had read, when I first came to campus a year and a half ago, of the excesses of the ’80s and the so-called death penalty.  As I got acquainted with campus, I bumped into people here and there who were witnesses of this great tragedy.

So, I watched, last night, feeling the pathos, especially for all the people affected by the NCAA judgment who had nothing to do with causing the problems.  Whatever else may be wrong with college athletics (especially football), I hope the NCAA never, ever, makes such a draconian decision again.

Fortunately, “Pony Excess” ended on a hopeful note.  The Mustangs are winning again.  I’m confident that the program is run with integrity.  I’ve been privileged to chat with a few of the people who appeared in last night’s program.  SMU has a good team, from the coaches to the administration and, while nobody’s perfect and we can find fault with any system, I’d bet that SMU’s football program is as clean or cleaner than any in the land. 

But the story told last night missed one important piece – the role of United Methodist bishops in helping to right the SMU ship.  In the wake of the scandal, a football coach, an athletic director and a university president resigned.  The documentary made an allusion or two to the school’s board of governors.  A very important part of the story attaches to the overhaul of the school’s governance structures.   

Southern Methodist University belongs to the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.   In terms of how the school runs day-to-day or how professors teach their courses or what kind of students come to SMU (all kinds), this fact means little.  I am employed at SMU because of this church relationship and I hope the presence of religious life organizations makes the school better than it would be without us.  But that’s not the point here. 

The bishops had a significant hand in helping to reorganize the school’s governance.  No more figurehead board while the good ole’ boys pulled the strings from the back room.  And yes, the Christian commitment to equity, integrity and transparency did, in fact, guide the values that helped to put SMU organizationally back on the road toward a vision of its better corporate self.  The church – through its episcopal leaders – stepped in and did the right thing.  And today’s SMU is much the better for it.      

None of this was mentioned in last night’s documentary.  Just a sentence or two in the narrative of the aftermath of the death penalty, in the changes that took place, would have satisfied me.  

Since religion is one of those topics that we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company and because religion has been relegated to the realm of private opinion, I understand why people don’t think of it as having anything to do with matters like college sports.  But it did.  And it does.  And we should notice.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | Pop Culture, Religion, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Prophetic Reminder from a Christmas Past

Well, I have taken quite a vacation from blogging, but for good reason, I hope.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript and have submitted a proposal to a publisher.  I’m waiting to hear.  But I’ve been thinking about this blog and feeling ready to climb back into the saddle.  Nearly at the same time, Pastor Robert Jefress, of First Baptist Church, Dallas, hands me something to think about.  Perfect!

You may have seen Dr. Jefress on CNN this morning, answering questions about the controversial web site that lets people grouse about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”   The charge of cowardly political correctness lies behind this internet effort as well as the call for people to proclaim their faith openly.

Which made me think of a journal entry of John Wesley’s that I read just a couple of days ago.  What was Mr. Wesley doing on Christmas Day, 1777?  I’ll let him tell us: “Thursday, 25.  I buried the remains of Mr. Bespham, many years master of a man-of-war.  From the time he receive d the truth in love, he was a pattern to all that believe.  HIs faith was full of mercy and good fruits; his works shall praise him in the gates.”

That’s it.   A burial.  Whatever else Mr. Wesley might have written in his private diary about this day, he mentions in the Journal only this one act, drawing attention to the legacy of a man who died full of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This little historical snapshot reminds us of how modern our Christmas traditions are, therefore how odd some of our concerns are about how people celebrate Christmas.  Though bits and snatches of modern traditions can be traced to more ancient times, most of what passes for Christmas celebrations these days are American traditions, most of which got started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Remembering this point humbles and chastens our opinions about what should happen surrounding the day.  And it’s especially good to remember that deeply committed Christians who are our forbears essentially did not observe December 25 at all.  They were too busy burying people and doing other necessary things.

Without wanting to sound crabby or cynical or Grinchy or Scoogy, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” seems ridiculously, embarassingly superficial as a way of witnessing to our faith in the Incarnation.  Even our overtly religious expressions of Christmas these days are too laden with the wrong emphases.  Which is why I can’t get too worked up about the stuff to which Pastor Jefress has drawn attention.

I do not want to set up some sort of false dichotomy with my fussing about Pastor Jefress’ concern over political correctness.  Still, I’d rather have words spoken over my grave like Mr. Wesley said of Mr. Bespham, rather than that I “kept the faith” by setting up some web site that lets people gripe about whatever it is that they think other people are doing wrong with this time of the year.

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , | 4 Comments