Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

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December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cost of Failing to Think

A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters.  The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary.  (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)

I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern.  To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing.  (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)  Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship.  Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention.  In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.

I am not bothered by competing moral visions.  They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity.  I am worried, rather, by the lack of  self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation.  That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.

This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated.  I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages.  To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.

We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect.  What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence?  This is a critical moral, educational question.

Which brings me back to the work of higher education.  I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it.  Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism.  Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23).  In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”

The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet.  As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.

However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem.  Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Needing Real Tolerance

I mentioned in the previous post my beef with the faux tolerance on college campuses.  (I generalize without demeaning examples of real tolerance.)  Desiring to think a bit more closely about what tolerance actually is, I hied myself to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary.

For the verb “tolerate,” this part of the definition comes closest: “To bear without repugnance; to allow intellectually, or in taste, sentiment, or principle; to put up with.”  The first infinitive caught my attention.

What does it mean “to bear” something?  Well, it means “to carry” it, which suggests that you have to come into close contact with it.  Tolerating something, tolerating a person, assumes close contact and interaction.  It also assumes some degree of discomfort with the bearing.

A college campus – even a small one – is a big place.  We can go about our business largely without having to interact seriously with ideological differences.  We thus need not tolerate one another even when we’re in close proximity.  We don’t have “to bear” anybody’s outrageous ideas because we don’t take the time seriously to engage them.

Remember higher education’s stated mission and the problem comes into plain view.  It is to help young people prepare intellectually and ethically for the (“adult”) world of ambiguities, difficulties, tragedies and hard choices.  I worry that we largely fail on this aim.  Why?  Precisely because we do not sustain activities that challenge students to grapple courageously and sensitively with anything very troubling.

Time for an example: as part of our 9/11 remembrances at the university where I work, we had a number of lectures, panel discussions and ceremonies.  As chaplain, I participated on a panel dealing with religious diversity and the need to live with one another in peace.  I believe deeply in the truth and goodness of this theme.  As I studied this gathering, though we were somewhat ethnically and religiously diverse, we were, for all I could tell, ideologically the same.

I speculate, of course, because I did not poll everyone in the room, but I did pay attention. Questions, comments and the general “vibe” in the room signaled virtual consensus on what the problems are and what we need to do to fix them.  Thus, when fellow panel members said, in a couple of different ways, that religions all essentially work for the same ends, nobody questioned that claim (except me) and numerous heads nodded assent.

When another panel member said that the reason for religion-related violence is ignorance and that we just “need to educate people,” again the general tenor of the room exhibited agreement.

Except for me.  I challenged the empty platitudes.    I’m not painting myself as the hero.  I was just trying to do what I think panel discussants are supposed to do.  We are different.  Let’s talk about our differences in a peaceful, even loving, way.

No, we didn’t do that.  Thus, we had no need for tolerance.

I am talking about a very common problem on college campuses.  We talk much about tolerance.  We actually demonstrate it very little.  We have events, we “engage” in “dialogue” and we all go home feeling good that we “tackled” some difficult topic.  But there was no real debate.  If anyone in the room disagrees, he/she/they stay silent.  Only the boldest of contrarians speak their minds.

This happens within the (college) environment that prides itself on upholding intellectual engagement, on being open and tolerant and courageously tackling the major issues of the day.  We still need real tolerance.

November 17, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | Leave a comment

A Tragic Failure in Higher Education

I recently had an encounter with a student who expressed irritation with “judgmental Christians” who tell people they are going to hell.  This attitude is  common on college campuses.  Therefore, our brief conversation nicely illustrates how we are largely failing to grow thoughtful, self-aware  young adults.  To use academic speak: we are not teaching students how to think critically, even though we talk about critical thinking all the time.  Dirty little secret: “thinking critically” often turns out to mean demonstrating agreement with the professor on tests and in papers.  Students figure this one out quickly.

I know that colleges and universities all have professors who don’t fit what I just said.  They are careful, compassionate, pedagogues.  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Walk with me, for a moment, through the conversation.  After telling me how bothered the student was by those judgmental Christians, I replied (trying to prompt thought), “So, you have an opinion about other people having an opinion.  What makes your opinion superior?”

I don’t want to get sidetracked on the theology of this question.  I know that thoughtful people disagree about people’s eternal destinies.  And I am not one who thinks going around telling people they’re going to hell represents a good Christian witness.  Rather, I want to look at the logical problem this student has.

It became clear to me that the student could not recognize that her opinion was not self-evidently true.  Merely making the assertion seemed sufficient to settle the matter.  Again, I don’t have a problem with the view.  I have a problem with the student’s inability to articulate reasons for thinking it superior to the one she was criticizing.

Why?  Not because she is intellectually slow (in fact, she is quite intelligent), but because most of us have lost the ability to have a truly open dialogue.  She assumed some moral high ground without having to think about whether this assumption is defendable.  She has learned – surreptitiously – that telling people they’re going to hell is wrong and offensive.  She learned this, most likely, not through careful thinking, but through rhetorical power plays from people she admires and respects.   They are her teachers, whether they hold the title or not.  (And we should remember what the book of James says about teachers.  See 3:1.)

In higher education, we are supposed to be in the business of helping students learn to think well.  This is not all we’re supposed to do, but certainly it is one of our main jobs.  We are to help students become self-aware and reflective about how they develop their opinions, where they get their ideas and how they support them.  We are to give them the intellectual tools to evaluate well their own thinking.  Then they’ll be able to fairly evaluate others’.

But we do not teach them.  Maybe we don’t have time.  Maybe we don’t care.  Good dialogue requires real tolerance and respect, not the mere mouthing of these words.  For all our talk about tolerance (which I support wholeheartedly), I see precious little of it on college campuses.  It’s more like we’ve declared a truce.  We don’t, in fact, tolerate each other, we just co-exist in the same general space.  We may call this arrangement “tolerance,” but it is a sham tolerance.  We tacitly make a deal not to talk to each other about controversial things.  Instead, we divide into self-selected groups and talk only to those who already agree with us.

So, nobody has to think critically, not even the professors.

To the extent that what I have said is true, to that extent we are failing to educate young people.   God forgive us.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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

Why I Love Books (the real paper variety)

I just got my most recent copy of Christian Century and opened it to find the interview with Warren Farha.  Warren owns and operates Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas.  With waves of nostalgia wafting over me, I read the interview.  Asked the question, “What do you think about the future of print?” Warren replied, “The book is a discrete object that changes your life.  [  ]  My first copy of Mere Christianity is 40 years old now.  I can see the marked-up pages, the squiggly blue ink, the now falling-apart copy, and I remember the experience of reading that book.  These books are bethels–stones of revelation.  They are sacramental objects.”

I could not agree more!  In fact, I feel his comments so strongly, I actually got a little choked up reading them.  I had to resist the temptation to go to my bookshelf and pull down one of those marked-up, worked-over, falling-apart copies.  It made me think of similar experiences I had with reading Lewis’ books and lots of others.  It made me think of the books I inherited from my preacher father, with his handwritten marginal notes.  It made me smell that familiar smell that theological libraries all seem to have.

Warren’s thoughts come not from mere nostalgia.  He refers to the neurology of reading e-books: “It is missing the parts of your brain that access deep attention and long-term memory.”  (I don’t know if Warren is right about this, but it makes me think of the physical act of writing, rather than keying thoughts into a computer.  Students listen up!  The physical act of writing notes in a class is more effective at memory and re-call that using your laptop!)  There is simply nothing like holding an actual book in your hands, feeling the paper, arguing with the author, engaging the mind.

Thank you, Warren.  May Eighth Day Books prosper and continue to bear fruit.  (And maybe you could think about a branch in Dallas…)

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Books/Publishing, Religion | , , , , | 2 Comments