"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscars! With Live Updates!

Great show! End of updates.

The Artist! Good choice, great film! And the dog is there! :)

Haha. Tom Cruise.

Oh thank goodness. My wife would likely have pouted for days had Meryl Streep not won.

I want to be Jean Dujardin's friend. And the dog, too. I want to be the dog's friend.

Always love the montages...be they of movies of the past or people who recently died.

New word: "gobsmacked"

Joann, earlier: Kristen Wiig acts like a 15-year-old girl, all the time. But without being obnoxious.

Joann thinks the father-daughter team accepting for short film is sweet. I think so too. But Joann said it first.

Screenplay awards to films we both saw and enjoyed! You have our validation, Academy.

Very disappointed by the lack of live Best Original Song performances...one of the best parts usually! Really wanted to see "Man or Muppet." But yay for the win.

Hard to believe it's Christopher Plummer's first win. And given the speed with which he ran up the stairs, he might live to have several more chances.

First fashion fight of the night. Joann is pro-Emma Stone's outfit, I'm anti-.

Haha. Great Chris Rock rant about the ease of voice acting.

"What?" and "Wow!" coming out of our mouths right now, repeatedly.

Ok, MUST see Hugo.

Bradley Cooper: Yeah.

LOL. Most awkward acceptance speech ever by winners for film editing for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The Christopher Guest crew!

Bummer. Joann was pulling for Melissa McCarthy.

Both of us a little shocked by how tinny people are sounding. You'd think as big of a production as this is, they'd be on top of the mic situation.

Morgan Freeman wearing a baseball cap! Cognitive dissonance!

Joann: Cameron Diaz looks beautiful; and then she opens her mouth.

We're feeling a little uninformed now, having not seen Hugo.

Matt's new call in life: seatfilling!

Joann's vote (not prediction) for best picture: Tree of Life (2nd: The Descendants)
Matt's vote (not prediction) for best picture: The Artist (2nd: The Descendants)

We've seen The Artist, Tree of Life, Moneyball, The Descendants, The Help, and Midnight in Paris. Have not yet seen Hugo, War Horse, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Matt: Who are you wearing, babe?
Joann: Old Navy, George Fox, Audrey Johnson, and THS.

Joann: New word..."peplum."

Oh the anticipation...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt XIII): Ruokanen and Huang, “Christianity and Chinese Culture”

Eds Miikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang, Christianity and Chinese Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010)

I left my heart in China. I’ve also left pieces of it in Prague, Santiago, and Hong Kong.

And since I mention it, Hong Kong is not China. Taiwan is also not China. I have students from Hong Kong and Taiwan in my classes, and they’ve made it abundantly clear that they are not Chinese and that their respective lands do not belong to China but are independent. Though I’m not sure the Chinese would agree with them.

Having spent ten months there, a hunger for deeper understanding of and respect for the Chinese people, history, culture, and religions was instilled and has been maintained over the past couple of years. As has my desire to learn to read and speak Chinese beyond just ordering a few dishes. After all, we’ll all be speaking Chinese in a few decades, right? J

I actually got sidetracked and haven’t yet finished this book, but I enjoyed what I read. The book has a nice format, each chapter an essay paired with another writer’s response to the essay, typically with at least slightly contrasting opinions between the two.

Most of the writers are eager to highlight the potential in the very-much growing Chinese Christian church, especially encouraging a more "Chinese Christianity" rather than just a “Christianity in China”, you might say. In other words: contextualize the Christian experience in a way that recognizes the ways many facets of traditional Chinese philosophies, religions, and values can create a kind of Christianity that is still very much Christian yet unique because of its interaction and blending with various aspects of Chinese culture.

I’m not sure if that would eventually mean the bread and wine of Eucharist are replaced by Baijiu and dumplings, but…(it’s okay, I can make that joke…I mean, suggestion…it’s not sacrilegious nor culturally insensitive, because, um…I love God and love China and have Chinese friends.)

One regret of my experience in China is how little contact I had with the Church while there. Most of my non-work time was spent investing in the lives of students, and I definitely wouldn’t take that away. But it might have been nice to have been a part of a faith community while there; hopefully this is an opportunity I’ll get in the future should a return to China, at least for a short time, be possible.

What most jumps out at me in the book are those insights related to ethical/moral formation across religious lines. Some good quotes (all of the essay writers are Chinese):

“…Confucian scholars and Christian theologians could continue fruitful dialogue and cooperation in two fields. First, they could reflect together on the metaphysical foundation of ethics. It seems evident that a purely atheistic ethics or purely humanistic ethics does not work out well. A moral system needs a suprahuman validation in order to be workable. Second, there is the continual practical task of understanding and expressing rationally the concrete contents of the universal natural moral law common to the human race. This is vitally important for the peace and the development of each nation and of the whole world.” (21)

The value of interfaith dialogue, for me at least, is more than just “oh, now I understand your beliefs and traditions…I don’t hate you anymore and will refrain from violent words and actions toward you and your kind.” It’s also about each party saying “show me how to ‘be good’ and ‘live well’ in the best way you know how, so I can be better myself.”

(“Tian” means “heaven”): “I suggest that inner moral cultivation rather than religion is what is shared in common across cumulative traditions. Tian/God/more-in-life-than-meets-the-eye is enabling human persons to be like and to cooperate with Tian/God/more-in-life-than-meets-the-eye in providing peaceful, harmonious, abundant life here in the world. Different revelations disclose provisions from Tian/God/more-in-life-than-meets-the-eye. Although not the same, these provisions are not in competition with each other. Possibly, one may receive and benefit from more than one provision as one practices inner moral cultivation.” (49)

I appreciate the ethical sentiment here, but maybe more so the trio of names used for God—a nice reminder not only that we’re not necessarily engaging with different “Gods” but also that God is more than just a larger, more powerful version of ourselves, but something/somebody much more transcendent and incomprehensible and likely more and different than our suppositions, as strongly as we Christians may feel that God has been made accessible and tangible and obvious in Jesus (which to an extent I really do believe).

Another way to say that might be: I’m not sure that just because we feel we “get” Jesus that we “get” God in quite the same way.

While I can’t go back to China at the moment, I get to experience a little bit of it here and now. In addition to having some Chinese students in my classes (and some from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who are of course not Chinese, but I’m ignorant and don’t know any better, and gosh they seem like they have a lot in common, no offense students J), I’ve also signed up to represent our English school in Olympia’s "Dragon Boat Festival" in April, along with four other teachers and about twenty students. Time to get in rowing shape!

The team has at least one Chinese student, but I think most are from elsewhere, especially Latin American countries. A little taste of China, at least…in addition to my Panda Express lunch today. Which tastes exactly like authentic Chinese food, of course. J

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt XII): Le Guin, “The Lathe of Heaven”

Ursula K. Le Quin, The Lathe of Heaven (New York: Scribner, 1971)

At my wife’s prodding, I decided to treat myself to a little sci-fi. A steady diet of non-fiction needed to be interrupted by a little indulgence.

The short synopsis: set in Portland (local!), the protagonist has the power to change reality with his dreams. Seeking a cure, he goes to a psychiatrist for help. The psychiatrist sees an opportunity and, rather than help, manipulates his patient’s dreams through hypnosis to make "positive" changes to reality. He is obviously motivated not by altruism but personal ambition and a desire to control. Of course, all hell breaks loose.

Despite his questionable motivations, the therapist does want to change some things for good. For example, he tries to eliminate racism by encouraging his dreamer to imagine a world without racism; but instead of altering people’s attitudes, all humankind’s skin changes to a gray color. Instead of total acceptance of the "other" and a worldwide love of diversity, the result is sameness and uniformity.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, other than to say this pattern continues: trying to mess with reality does more harm than good.

It was fun. And I think it’s a fascinating illustration of how our desire to be in control of our lives and our world, despite our good intentions, can be damaging. I mentioned a couple posts back a great quote about “control” from Vanier, which I think is relevant to the themes of this book (see below).

Taoism is obviously central to this book, as the author herself has said here: (Le Guin interview) I think Taoism offers a nice pushback on the spirit of many institutions and movements, be they religious or not. Especially concepts like “wu wei" (meaning non-doing or non-action) and an emphasis on living in harmony with nature provide some useful queries:

To what extent are my choices driven by a desire to control?

Do I show respect for the earth and for my fellow humans in the way I treat them?

Do I treat the people around me as objects to be manipulated for my own gain or sacred beings to be revered?

Are we so sure of our way of acting that we are blind to what is true, right action and so end up making some awful mistakes in the way we live and view others?

To what extent did Jesus seek to control his destiny and the outcome of his life and others, and to what extent did he practice wu wei and let nature take its course, without resisting?

Some good things to think about. I’ve latched onto the philosophical questions provoked by the book but I should clarify: it is really fun, and one could probably enjoy the book without thinking too hard about it. J


(Here is a link to an old post I did comparing Christianity and Taoism, for those interested: "Tao of Jesus")

Monday, February 20, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt XI): Wright, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters”

NT Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

I probably need to spend less time reading the same authors (Wright, Volf, et al.), but they’re so reliable and illuminating that it’s hard not to keep coming back to them.

Wright here addresses a subject that has become consuming for me in recent months: virtue, character, moral/ethical training and development, whatever you want to call it…essentially, why “being good” is not something Protestants should ignore as an anxiety-producing, unnecessary and ultimately doomed pursuit but, rather, embrace as a course to be taken in an effort to become more like Jesus and more fully human.

A quick clarification about “virtue”: from Aristotle to Aquinas to MacIntyre and other present day virtue ethicists, it’s not simply just a matter of being good. Virtue is a kind of goodness that is acquired much like someone acquires the ability to play the violin or hit a curveball—through practice, through repeated attempts to succeed that lead to failure after failure. It’s a sort of acquired goodness that comes through discipline.

I think the person and life of Jesus, when viewed through the lens of “virtue,” yields an interesting possibility. While some Christian theology likes to paint Jesus as possessing an unattainable goodness that is meant not to be repeated but to humble us into needing him for salvation, it might be more helpful to think of Jesus deriving his goodness not simply from his “God-ness” but from years of hard work. Can Jesus really be a moral exemplar for us if his lifestyle is not even close to repeatable? (Don’t hear me necessarily dampening his divinity as much as underscoring his humanity.)

Wright describes what he means by character: “Human character…is the pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut in to them (as it were), you see the same person through and through. Its opposite would be superficiality: we all know people who present themselves at first glance as honest, cheerful, patient, or whatever, but when you get to know them better you come to realize that they’re only “putting it on,” and that when faced with a crisis, or simply when their guard is down, they’re as dishonest, grouchy, and impatient as the next person.” (27).

I love the realism in a focus on Christian character. My experience with much of Christian language is that it can be highly conversion-based: you become a Christian, and you’re something totally different. Your nature has changed, you’ve made some ontological shift, and now you’ll start living differently with the help of the Holy Spirit. The problem for me is that this "shift" is not something I always see or experience...like it's a nice theory that experience doesn't always validate.

I’ve been a Christian for a long time but don’t feel all that “excellent” in certain areas. I’ve been told that’s okay that and that “grace abounds”...but that feels unsatisfying. I’ve come to think of this Christian journey as much less of a cosmic leap from evil to good or darkness to light and much more about getting pointed in the right direction, with unending “conversions” along the way as one journeys with Christ and others. But I'm biased; this has been my journey.

The theology that undergirds Wright’s argument: “My contention in this book is that the renewed biblical heaven-and-earth vision, for which I’ve argued elsewhere, sets a framework within which a genuinely Christian vision of virtue stands out as the best way to think about what to do. The practice and habit of virtue, in this sense, is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world.” (69) “Language” of course referring not simply to right belief and speech, but to right action.

The goal of the Christian life, according to Wright, is God’s new world, a world filled with people of great character, evident in their embodiment of justice, courage, wisdom, and compassion. Like training for a marathon (speaking from experience), pursuit of this goal requires training, discipline, self-awareness, support, and the countless failures that often precede success. One likely can’t get to that goal through singing songs in church on Sunday alone. Though songs may help. J

Probably more than anything I’ve read recently, I’d recommend this. It’s a great and accessible introduction to a growing school of thought in Christian theology pushing for the recovery of virtue in the Christian experience. Though, it might make being a Christian feel like a much more difficult enterprise (or much more attractive, depending on who you are). In which case, maybe it’s a book to avoid. J

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt X): Vanier, “Becoming Human”

Last June I spent a few days recapping what books had been shaping my thinking in those first six months of 2011. Then I read a bunch more as the year progressed but failed to keep up with my goal to share them all here. It’s a good discipline for me to revisit them, and because some of you visitors to this site like reading about it, I thought I’d resume the survey.

And I’ll confess, some of these books might seem dull. I love learning, love absorbing and digesting and collecting as much material as I can in those areas which most interest me and which I will likely explore should I take a more formal step on the path toward a PhD. Interests which, as evidenced by the books I’ll share in the coming days, are generally related to spiritual/character formation, how the Church interacts with other faiths, and how the church involves itself in the concerns of the world, locally and globally.

Looking at my wife’s pictures on her facebook page might be a more entertaining way to spend the next few minutes of your life than proceeding here. J


Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd, 1998)

Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities in which people with various kinds of intellectual disabilities live together with those without (also a former home of Henri Nouwen). I discovered him a couple years ago, when his insights into the personhood of all people were especially relevant while working part-time with developmentally disabled men.

Here he speaks very simply about what he believes entails true humanness, especially what it means to be part of the human community, not just an individual person.

This is a book to be read and re-read (it’s certainly more accessible than a thick, systematic theology textbook). Its insights on belonging, inclusion, difference and forgiveness ring true for me, not just on the level of comparative theology or social justice but as it pertains to how we live and move and “be” with those we love most.

On control: “To be human means to accept history as it is and to work, without fear, toward greater openness, greater understanding, and a greater love of others. To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all.” (15)

Such a great exhortation that balances both a sense of realism and optimism while challenging us to realize that our projects, whether large or small, will often fail, because we are not always really in control of the outcome, as much as we'd like to be. What a liberating feeling that can be—releasing control.

On our common humanity: “We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all humanity.” (36)

This captures what may be one of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher at an international language school. My students aren't all saints and don't necessarily embody this spirit at all times (nor do I), but when I see it happening it's really special.

On what is involved in conflict between groups: “One: the certitude that our group is morally superior, possibly even chosen by God….Two: a refusal or incapacity to see or admit to any possible errors or faults in our group….Three: a refusal to believe that any other group possesses truth or can contribute anything of value.” (47)

I'm challenged especially by #2 in both my beliefs and my day-to-day life. I do think I’m at times unwilling to see my faults, maybe out of fear or pride, and maybe because at times this fear or pride is so dominating that I simply can’t admit fault or believe others can teach me. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t been trained well enough, having been encouraged more in Sunday school to defend my faith than to adapt it in light of new discovery. But maybe that’s just what I needed as a Christian teenager.

On bad religion versus good religion: “When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability toward others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life.” (63)

While I know it won't sit well with some, maybe for different reasons, I absolutely love this quote and find in it both great, incisive conviction as well as great hope for what my own religion and the religions of others can be for each other and for the world.

On Jesus: “Throughout his life, Jesus taught and led people into a vision of our common humanity, where mercy and kindness are more important than ideology.” (66)

Is this just a liberal view of Jesus where belief is mostly irrelevant? I don’t think that’s it; I think the point is not that ideology has no place, but that, perhaps in contrast to what you see among some Christians, kindness should trump ideology. I don’t mean to say individual Christians aren’t kind; most are. But I do think corporate kindness toward certain groups (homosexuals?) is an example of a place where we Christians struggle to let mercy trump ideology.

On fear: “Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion.” (71)

Disagree? Seem like an overstatement or oversimplification? Consider, all ye fellow victims of hubris, how we often instinctively exclude those trying to help us, maybe for fear we’ll be exposed as frail, ignorant, weak, whatever…and how when we are more inclusive, we invite people into a space to guide us, correct us, teach us, trusting they accept us without judgment.

On feeling threatened: “We are all frightened of those who are different, those who challenge our authority, our certitudes, and our value system. We are all so frightened of losing what is important for us, the things that give us life, security, and status in society. We are frightened of change and, I suspect, we are even more frightened of our own hearts.” (73)

When someone asks me, “are you sure?” I often say something like “no, I don’t feel the need to be sure. Certainty is overrated.” Sometimes people just are annoyed or confused by that response, I find.

On being agents of new life with modest goals: “Let us not set our sights too high. We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.” (163)

Theologically, I feel pushback on the dual feelings of urgency and grandeur that can be tempting—the feeling that this dark, lost, hopeless, unjust world can be solved if I/we would act quickly, and the feeling that “changing the world” is my destiny. Personally, I feel pushback on the notion that my ambitions to impact the lives of many through my vocation are all-important, ambitions which can overshadow the need to live well in very simple ways, treating individuals with respect and being grateful for the basic necessities of life which I possess.

To becoming human! (Raises coffee cup in air)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Some Early Thoughts on Fatherhood

This evening, a sportscaster talking about Eli Manning and the Super Bowl suggested this victory cemented Manning’s place in the Hall of Fame. And then he referred to the Super Bowl as “the most important game,” in an intense, epic voice, as if to say: “there is nothing more important than the Super Bowl.” My wife laughed; she thinks sports fanaticism is funny.

I’m going to be a father in a little less than half a year. Fatherhood seems important. Like, legitimately important. I hate to be dismissive of an event that provides jobs for its participants and good fun and company for millions of viewers, so maybe I should say: my expected child and impending fatherhood is more important to me than the Super Bowl.

It’s perhaps more important to me than anything, actually. That feels a bit strange to say, at this point. My health is important, and I am careful to make choices that cultivate good health. My job is important, for the lives I influence through it, the opportunity to be “useful” and a good steward of my abilities, and for the income.

My friends and family are important; they’ve shaped me, enriched me, educated me, brought pleasure to my life, and deserve my reverence and gratitude and attention. My hobbies are important and provide enrichment and a needed escape from pressures and stresses.

My educational goals are important and deeply linked to my vocational goals, as are the nurturing of my gifts and strengths. Inching ever closer toward something like moral excellence is important. My faith and hope in my/our Lord, God, Savior, and Way is immeasurably important.

Perhaps more important than them all is my companion on the journey through all of these things, my beloved wife.

And then I think about being a prospective parent, of what will be required of me, what gift I will be given, what responsibility will be laid upon me, the sacredness of my child and the opportunity of fatherhood.

I think about the delicacy of our formation, how forces, powers, people, contexts, etc—how they shape us, how malleable we are, especially in those early years.

I think about how I could be a horrible father and really mess up my child. I think about how I could be a horrible father and my child could become an excellent human being, in spite of me. I think about how I could be a great father and my child could become a troubled soul and live a troubled life. Or, option four, I’m fine, he/she’s fine.

I can’t control the outcome, I suppose. You fathers out there probably know this, and have much more wisdom than I in this area. But I think about my child, and feel an enormous sense of call—to be the most caring, educating, nurturing, empowering father I can be for my child. I can’t fully control my child’s development, and do expect pain and sorrow upon continual realizations of this fact along the way.

But I can influence, persuade, guide, model and endure through tough parenting moments with hope that my weaknesses as a person and father will not overly influence my child for the worse and that my successes will take root and help my child on his or her journey of becoming—becoming more fully his- or herself, more united with others, with self, with God.

I think about being a father, and much of life seems secondary, inconsequential. All my ambitions and interests seem less significant. My desires to be right, to be praised, to be known, to win, to be in control, whatever…seem lost in the shadows of some very simple things—having warmth, food, health, community, a wife to share it with, and a child to pass everything on to.

Being a prospective father puts it all into perspective. I’ve no intention to abandon these important things in my life, these pursuits and dreams and essentials of daily living. But I think excellence in fatherhood and the emotional, physical, social, mental, and spiritual health of my child are ambitions and goals that may trump them all.

Well…maybe child and wife are tied? Oh boy…I’ve got to figure that one out. Maybe I don’t have to choose. J

I share here some lyrics that have brought inspiration and clarity of late, penned by Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol:

A hand upon my forehead, the joking and the laugh
Waking up in your arms, a place to call my own

This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life

Ireland in the World Cup, either North or South
The fan club on the jukebox, the birds and yes the bees

This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life

Words of reassurance, but only if they're true
Just some simple kindness, no vengeance from the gods

This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life

To share what I've been given, some kids eventually
And be for them what I've had, a father like my dad

This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life
This is all I ever wanted from life

(Snow Patrol. "Lifening" Fallen Empires. Universal Music Group, 2011.)