Because life is a series of edits

Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

This Just In

In Family, Marriage, Places & Spaces, Sports, Writers on February 28, 2010 at 8:06 am

We interrupt this discussion to bring you Megan's latest post – on baseball. Hints of spring, familiarity of home, America's pastime done on the cheap…I'm in love all over again.

Why Johnny Can’t Write (Part 1)

In Education, Westminster, Young Ones on February 25, 2010 at 8:43 pm

As alluded to in my previous post, I recently experienced a rather depressing "perfect storm" of grading, research, and melancholy that gave me pause as to what in the world I'm doing (or trying to do) in the field of Christian education. A colleague of mine at the middle school level put it well on his blog:

"Some recent observations have caused me to worry about what and how kids are reading, writing, and thinking:

1. The English teachers at our school have been noticing a
gradual loss of reading and writing skills in the last five years. While the “above-average” students still exist in good numbers, there
seems to be more students with “very-low” reading competency.

2. My colleagues and I on the 7th grade team have noticed more
students each year who are struggling with vocabulary and reading
comprehension skills, so that even in math, they struggle with
understanding the questions asked of them.

3. Everywhere you look outside of the classroom, students are
reading a lot, but it’s mostly text messages, instant messages, emails,
teen-related blogs and websites. Teens are often seen viewing screens
yet are very rarely seen reading a book. (Some are calling this
generation of kids the “children of the screen.”)

I agree with his observations and, after spending last weekend reading 50 papers about my New Testament students' study of their own churches (hardly an overly technical writing assignment), I can confirm the reduction of general reading (and writing) competency of freshmen teenagers. Granted, the entertainment value of papers like these is certainly worth something, but let me suggest a more serious significance from a different angle – a more theological and eternal angle.

My specific concern is this: it's not just that kids struggle to write in general; in terms of reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible, they just have little to write about at all.

In our last Bible department meeting, our staff walked through an excellent article entitled "The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy: A View from the Classroom." In the piece, author David R. Nienhuis laments the fact that despite 84% of Americans consider the Bible "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels. Nienhuis quotes religion journalist David Gibson in saying that the Bible is "America's favorite unopened text."

"As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I [Nienhuis] know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students – around 95% of them – are Christians, and half of them typically score just over 50 percent, a failing grade."

Nienhuis continues:

"Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23% were able to order four key events from Israel's history. These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84% knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text – even though a full 86% of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith."

Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn't, talks about three major shifts that have occurred since the evangelistic Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 19th century. Prothero argues that there has been a shift 1) from learning to feeling, 2) from the Bible to Jesus, and (most importantly) the shift 3) from theology to morality.

I see aspects of each of these shifts on a daily basis in my classroom. Most kids walk into my New Testament class expecting it to feel "fun like youth group" (don't get me started), trusting more their own relativistic answers to the question "What would Jesus do?" than the more concrete answers to "What does the Bible teach?", and proof-texting away complex situations and issues with overly simplistic (and usually out-of-context) applications of biblical verses they quote. I know, I know: they're just teenagers, sure, but it would be a whole lot easier to forgive them their folly if it wasn't for the ugly arrogance that so often clears a path for their misinformed hermeneutics (both of which they have learned well from our mile-wide, inch-deep evangelical churches).

The reality in all this is that Scripture memory done apart from Story breeds fundamentalist legalism. A majority of my own students think they know the Bible inside and out because they were made to memorize random verses in their childhood; the problem is that they have absolutely no idea how any of what they learned fits together (nor why it matters that it does). I agree with Nienhuis when he posits, "I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate."

I don't either, but for brevity's sake, I'll save the rest of my thoughts for my next post.

Out of the Mouths of…Adolescents

In Church, Education, Pop Culture, Seminary, Theologians, Westminster, Young Ones on February 21, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Here are some choice selections from the papers my New Testament freshmen are getting back tomorrow. The assignment was for students to interview a member of their church's leadership and write a 2-3 page paper explaining their fellowship's/denomination's doctrinal beliefs about things like governance, worship style, sacraments, purposes, functions, etc. (I've thrown in some comments from me just for kicks.)

"The denominational ties of our church are a key belief of our denomination and have no higher archy." [That's good. I prefer the lower kind of archy myself…]

"We
participate in the Lord's Supper about every three months. We drink
grape juice and not wine, and once you have been saved, you are aloud
to participate in it." [So much for using the time for silent reflection…]

"Our church has a leadership structure like the federal government." [Oh, God help us…]

"Teaching, theology, evangelism, and outreach are defiantly important to the church." [Okay, okay, you made your point. Now back off, Barbie…]

"In our denomination, we believe in theology and use evangelism to share the gospel." [Oh, so that's how it works…]

"One of the things that sets apart my church from many other churches is we seek to be Christ-like." [Attention churches seeking to be otherwise, this might be part of your problem…]

"There is also a plurality of elders, which means the ruling elders and pastors each have one vote." [If they only have one vote, doesn't that mean there is a singularity of each elder?]

"My church's worship style is the substance of style." [So Word to your Father, yo…]

"Our pastor bases the sermon straight form the Bible itself and does not interpret the Bible in any way." [Which is another way of saying he reads it…]

"Our church has two types of worship: liturgical and a more open, less-structured style." [So are we to understand that the second group meets in a nest?]

"I
would say the weakest part of the church in my eyes is the youth group.
I have been to several different youth groups and ours is not as good
as others. The main reason for this is because there are more kids at
other youth groups." [Indeed, youth ministry is full of these chicken-or-egg dilemmas, which is why I'm not a youth pastor…]

"There are many reasons why my church is a PCA church; firstly, it resides in the Apostles' Creed, and secondly,
it states facts in the catechism." [Anybody driven by that neighborhood and heard the building reciting the Confession?]

"According to my pastor, we believe all orthodox beliefs…and some of our own as well." [This one's possibly my favorite, especially since I know the pastor…]

"If there is something in a service that I do not like, I can just go to another service that I do like." [Moral therapeutic deism, anyone?]

"The church
participates in many functions such as work programs, community
services, etc. My pastor also mentioned the many asylums that care for orphans
or widows." [Is "asylums" what we're calling deacons nowadays?]

"The senior pastor reports to the elders and the small pastors report to the senior pastor." [Note to graduating seminary students under 5'8": don't even mess interviewing with this one…]

"My
pastor thinks that church is very important for Christians…and when
asked if church was important for skeptics, he quickly agreed, saying,
'Skeptics are looking for the truth, making church a good place to find
it.' He wasn't sure if church was important to God." [I'm so relieved.]

"We differ in belief from many other churches similar to ours." [Or put another way, they think the same as many other churches different from them.]

"After visiting our church for the first time, we loved the way the pastor did his sermon.
He just really got the message across and did it in a way that makes
you feel almost involved." [Lord, have mercy if he had actually crossed that line…]

"Our church is very big on the authority and suffering of the Bible." [I'm guessing she meant "sufficiency," but why major on minors?]

"My mom and I were church shopping and accidentally found our church." [Must have been hiding in the "discount sales" bin…]

"I
appreciate how everything is kept modern. There is a live band playing
like a Christian rock concert. For me, it makes it easier to worship
because I can sing as loud as I want without anyone hearing me." [Because, of course, that is the point of worship…]

I've got a post brewing from both a theological and educational perspective on what I think is going on here, so stay tuned…

We Were Young and We Were Improving

In Family, Friends, Musicians, Places, Poetry, Sports, Thought on February 16, 2010 at 11:38 pm

When we moved from Colorado back to the Midwest five years ago, Megan got her first real taste of my tiny hometown's passion for all things basketball and baseball. While she mocked it a bit then, she's since come around to a more accepting position, which was helpful this month, as I was invited back to Griggsville to join in celebrating the career of my junior high school coach, Ken Stauffer.

IMG_4251

Coach Stauffer's coaching legacy includes 1,130 wins split between Griggsville's seventh and eighth grade basketball teams, countless regional and sectional trophies, two state basketball championships (with more appearances),
and induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of
Fame
. He retires with something north of a .750 winning percentage with only two losing seasons over his 38-year career. (For the record, the 7th and 8th grade teams I played on were a combined 39-2. Booyah.)

 Junior High (25 years later)

Speaking of those teams, here are seven of the eight guys in my grade who played for Coach Stauffer all through junior high school. Six of the seven of us went on to experience continued team success in our high school years, and as this was the first time all of us had been together in Griggsville in 25 years, a picture seemed appropriate.

IMG_4254

As part of the celebration, the school had pulled out a lot of old trophies and pictures, one of which I had completely forgotten about from 1982, but that Megan and the girls found particularly humorous. I was one of two fifth graders to make the eighth grade team that year, and though I didn't get to play in the tournament, I went on to enjoy good success in both junior and senior high baseball later (my only real credential for what I'm doing this spring…ahem).

 IMG_4255

All that to say, it was a fun weekend at home honoring Coach Stauffer, seeing old teammates, and reliving a few of the glory days. Granted, Megan reminded me of her original Uncle Rico post, and my girls couldn't quite believe I was once the age that my oldest is now, but to quote my favorite Midwestern poet:

That's when a sport was a sport
And groovin' was groovin'
And dancin' meant everything
We were young and we were improvin'

Laughin', laughin' with our friends
Holdin' hands meant somethin', baby
Outside the club, 'Cherry Bomb'
Our hearts were really thumpin'

Say, "Yeah yeah yeah"
Say, "Yeah yeah yeah"

— from "Cherry Bomb" by John Mellencamp

Yeah.

Happy Puke Day

In Arts, Holidays on February 14, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Cupid
Mr. Warren Smith, Westminster biology teacher/Cupid model/Valentine's Day lover.

Play a Man’s Game, But Will Men Will Show Up to Play?

In Humanity, Sports, Television on February 10, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Over the past few days, I've read several interpretations of this year's Super Bowl commercials, many in which men seemed chastised for not being "male enough." (I noticed the trend myself in real-time on Sunday, but hadn't had time to put down my thoughts until now.)

Personally, my reaction to the ads was positive, if for no other reason than that advertisers seemed to be targeting a demographic other than just the metro-sexual and hyper-sexual male types. Instead, this year's crop of commercials seemed aimed at the wimpy male type – the guy who, either outwardly or inwardly, has basically surrendered his masculinity to his more "feminine side" (if there is such a thing) and needs to buck up and be the man in the relationship (whatever relationship that happens to be).

The first ad toward this end was for Dockers and their call for a Pantsformation. What I took from it was the call to men (mostly slobbish, out-of-shape guys who take pride in their slobbish out-of-shapeness) to dress up a bit and, well, "wear the pants" of initiative in life:

Another one in this same vein was for Flo.tv. This commercial applied the "buck up" theme to a particular male/female/sports relationship triangle in which a guy lets his girlfriend walk all over him when he would rather be watching the game. CBS sports anchor Jim Nantz's comment at the end: "Change outta that skirt, Jason." (Ironically, Nantz divorced his wife of 26 years last October, so I'm not sure his words and example are the best to follow concerning the aforementioned male/female/sports relationship triangle.)

Apparently, a lot of women had trouble with this next ad from Dodge, as it came off "ridiculously misogynist and hyper-masculine" in its portrayal of men's brooding anger at having to deal with women's demands before making "Man's Last Stand" and choosing to drive a Dodge Charger. While I'm no expert on the matter of misogyny, there does seem to be a fair amount of emasculation the men in the commercial are trying to withstand (albeit with a pretty shallow course of action in simply owning the car of their choice):

Perhaps the one spot I liked most was Dove Men+Care's "Journey to Comfort" ad. Though I have no plans to buy their product (sorry, Dove, but I feel comfortable enough in my own skin not to care that much about it), I could relate to the frenetic life documented in the commercial, as well as the sense of accomplishment that comes with having (so far) survived it.

Whereas the typical Super Bowl fare might (and did) include the typical
"cars, cash, and cuties" commercials, this year's collection seemed
more geared to appeal to a man's needs as much or more as his wants.
Though wrapped in humor, subtle acknowledgments of a man's desire for
purpose, respect, adventure, and success seemed to upstage the
normal bounty of commercials boasting of beer and babes.

The thing I take from all this is – newsflash! – there's some real confusion out there as to what true manhood entails, so much so that it's become a national joke during the biggest television event in the world. Have we really come to a point where men are so comfortable laughing at and thinking of themselves as mere "male wannabes" that advertisers have recognized a whole new market to target?

Bubbaville, Super Bowl, Love

In Friends, Holidays, Places, Places & Spaces, Seminary, Sports on February 3, 2010 at 9:56 pm

When we lived in Colorado, Megan and I hosted an annual White Trash Super Bowl Party.

We took our inspiration from the Colorado Springs neighborhood in which we bought our first house – "Bubbaville," we affectionately called it. You see, we lived down the street from the local Salvation Army; the police helicopters flew over our house every night as we happened to be in the center of their "suspicious behavior" circuit; and our neighbors (with whom we awkwardly shared a driveway) used to loudly ride their four-wheeler around our house for fun.

The idea of an actual party came a couple years later, after we had moved out of Bubbaville and into a different neighborhood across town. We encouraged our friends to embrace their "inner white
trash." For our part, we let our then-very-young children run around in
nothing but diapers; Megan put on a ton of cheap jewelry and frizzed
out her hair; I didn't shower, fix my bedhead, or wear anything but sweats and a white T-shirt. We
thought about putting a couple vehicles up on blocks in the front yard, but
in the end opted for dragging a bunch of stuff out of the garage and putting up a
couple of cheap pink flamingos instead.

Here's an invitation I sent out via email one year:

Superbowl Invite (Low Res)

Our friends gleefully showed up and played their parts: guys wore "wife-beater" T-shirts, fake mullets, and jeans with holes (a la Def Leppard); gals got "creative" with their makeup, giving themselves fake hickeys and black eyes as if they had just fought AND made up with their boyfriends/husbands in our driveway. There were other little kids running around in diapers and pull-ups, and we all sat around laughing at each other – sometimes watching the game, always watching the commercials.

It was funny…and fun…and wrong. Megan felt it…and so did I.

For someone like me, whose sense of humor can seem unfortunately more developed than his sensitivity, having fun at the expense of others is all too easy to be all that good. I learned a long time ago not to use humor as a weapon, but there have been plenty of instances – some public, most private – when I have broken my own cease-fire agreement. The only thing quicker than my brain is my tongue, which can be unfortunate for others when the former follows the latter in an all-out pursuit of anything funny.

When we moved to St. Louis and I got my first full semester of seminary under my belt, the Holy Spirit zeroed in on a couple of areas in my life that caused me to regret and repent of some prejudices I never thought I had. Despite growing up in a county with next to no racial diversity, my prejudices rarely involve race; instead (and as my "white trash" years should have first clued me in), I have to watch out for "education prejudice" – judging others on the education (or the sense of education) I perceive them to have or not have.

While there's more nuance to it than I can describe in words, basically it's a very quick process that goes something like this: if I think I'm smarter than you are, I win; if I don't think I'm smarter than you are, then I ask the question again and again until I can figure out a reason how and why I could be. (Ironically, the ridiculous part in all this is that I assume by default that I'm actually dumber than everyone, which is another example of how sin ratchets up my insecurities and feeds the aforementioned cycle.)

Thankfully – mercifully – I've grown in my understanding of God's love for me through the words and wounds of grace, but the Super Bowl (of all things) and the memories of the "white trash" parties of the past serve as an annual reminder of my need to love others as God loves others, which often – and often simply – means not making fun of them.

As Paul wrote to the Philippians (and as a good friend once shared with me because of my arrogance):

"And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:9-11

Go Colts.

(Note: To relive last year's Super Bowl (and commercials), I live-blogged it here.)