School’s Out Forev… Oh Wait, We’re Back

So I’m back in college. This is an unexpected turn of events, but (not counting a brief and semi-disastrous stint in a graduate English program) my somewhat meandering 20180823_172911professional arc has passed through a place where it actually makes concrete sense to go back. And on August 16th I found myself back in a classroom with people who are almost literally half my age. Let’s just say this 21st-century classroom is a lot different even that the 21st-century classroom was in when I was 18.

In a sort of sequel to what I saw on campus during my brief tenure working at a college, here’s 5 bits of advice (read curmudgeonly opinionating) that I’d offer my classmates this time around.

  1. Close your laptop. This means you, guy who sits in front of me and plays solitaire through half the class. I mean, at least you’re not looking at pornography, at which point I’d have to whack you over the head with my textbook (see point 3 below). Anyway, you or someone you know has paid upwards of $2000 for you to sit in this course, which breaks down to this hour costing around $70. If you want to pay someone $70 for wifi and a place to sit for an hour, I’ll clean out my garage and get a Square swiper. Bring a friend.
  2. Seriously, close your laptop. Do the research. It’s not helping you learn and it’s likely inhibiting you from learning. Take notes on paper. You’ll remember them more clearly.
  3. Spring for the real textbook. This semester has been my first exposure to the abomination that is the eTextbook. At least the version I’m using from McGraw Hill seems to actually function as though reduced comprehension were an intended goal from the outset. For one, it greys out what it considers unnecessary text. Useless stuff like the intro paragraph to each chapter that frames everything you’re about to read and offers an outline. It’s a built-in layer of disengagement.
    McGraw Hill also offers something called Smartbook Learn Smart (Which, give me a break with the redundancy. If you have to insist twice in three words that your gadget is “smart”, well, color me dubious.) It’s basically a series of quiz questions that pop up while you’re reading. To keep you engaged, I guess. Some small quibbles, though. Like the questions run out before the chapter ends so you can “finish” without finishing. And there’s that issue of literally, in the book itself, teaching to the test. It actively trains your brain to glean just enough facts to escape its clutches. All told, it’s shallow comprehension and minimal retention. And it’s a pain in the ass to navigate, hence the longing to escape. You can keep your keyword searches and just let me scan the chapter. Learning happens in the fringes, too.

    1. This brings up a broader point about college as a whole. It’s a great place to learn and it’s filled with smart people from which to do so. But, the university as an institution cannot deliver learning. What it delivers institution wise is a GPA, which is a shorthand for performance that can be strikingly divorced from what you actually leave college knowing. It’s been my experience as a hiring manager out in The Real World that GPA doesn’t mean much on a resume. It really only matters to grad schools. Do what you have to do to keep your scholarships/athletic eligibility/position yourself for more education or whatever, but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll be out there building a life from what you learned long after anybody cares about your transcript.
  4. Don’t bother taking a picture of the white board with your phone at the end of class. If you can even find that photo in the avalanche of selfies and other ad hoc photojournalism of your college life, it’ll just be a meaningless bunch of scribble on a wall. Take your own notes. See point 2 above. And, because I love pointing people to Wendell Berry, give this a read. Especially the last 10 paragraphs or so.
  5. Ask questions. Forget the stuff about “No such thing as a stupid question” and “If you have a question, someone else probably does, too.” Filling in gaps is the lowest purpose a good question can serve. If not more importantly, at least more conscientiously, questions make professors feel like they’re in a room with fellow humans who care about what’s going on. Having done a stint in front of a classroom, engagement is one of the best services you can offer any teacher. But, also, asking questions disrupts the lecture in important ways. It opens the door into a different part of your professor’s brain. Not the part delivering prepared material, but the live creativity. Considering that your professor got their job for a reason, this is probably my only really good advice. Try to access that part of any professor’s mind as often as you can.

Outside the classroom, I can’t really help you. I’m doing by best to keep up with a marriage, two rowdy boys, two even rowdier dogs, the job for which I’m going back to school to do better, a first-floor renovation at my house, and occasionally writing something so I don’t get kicked out of my writing group. I can not even imagine the world of a true college freshman anymore so I won’t pretend to have anything worthwhile to say. But in that classroom, we’re on the same page together. Think about making it a paper one.

Excerpt: Blue Planet II

I recently wrote an essay about the excellent BBC documentary Blue Planet II for Think Christian. Here’s a snippet. You can read the full thing here. Viva la mer!

To understand the consequences of our authority and vulnerability run amok, we must start with a sense of the glory of our only world. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved nature documentaries. When I first encountered Blue Planet, the David Attenborough-narrated BBC masterpiece, I was captivated. Now, 17 years later, we have Blue Planet II, a fascinating sequel balancing delight in the wonder of creation, and lamenting the role humans have played in its destruction.

Each episode of Blue Planet II reveals a window into a world usually hidden from view below the water. Racing pods of dolphins joining schools of tuna and pods of whales to feast in the vast open ocean. Teams of sea lions hunting fish in the rocky lagoons of the Galapagos. The first glimpse ever at the teeming life on the Antarctic sea floor. The entire series resounds with the wonder and intricacy of God’s creation.

Olympic Dreams

Jacques Ellul once said that once a movement becomes an institution, it’s dead. He was talking about the dangers of locking faith up in a bureaucratic, self-preserving power structure, but I think his words have a ring to them when you think about the Olympics and other “amateur” sports organizations (ahem, NCAA anything).

There’s a charm to the idea of the Olympics–competitors from around the world gathering every few years to compete at games and showcase all the crazy and amazing things the human body can do. I mean, I mostly hate figure skating, but it’s still amazing that people can strap knife blades to their feet and zip around the ice jumping and spinning without breaking an ankle or cracking their skull open. (It’s all the arm waving and dancy fingers that lose me). And there’s the second-hand exhilaration watching a skier go airborn as they fly down a mountain right on the edge of disaster (not to mention the ugly thrill when someone crosses that border in a tumbling heap).

That’s the legend of the Olympics. The reality is a little less satisfying. The Olympics™ has become an ultra-competitive business. There’s the IOC, plagued with accusations of graft as less-than-reputable nations grease the wheels of the bidding system to get that legitimizing feather in the cap of Western media descending and fawning over their culture and turning a collective blind eye to whatever doesn’t fit the feel-good narrative packaged for the viewers back home. Then there’s weird decisions like barring the French skiing team from putting a small sticker on their helmets to honor their friend who died in training while over on the snowboard slopes, brand names and logos festoon the bottom of every board.

Then there are the athletes. The number of stories I’ve heard of athletes changing their citizenship to whichever country will give them the Olympic stage has been disenchanting to say the least. And what of the apparently high socioeconomic bar for Olympic athletes? How many athletes will we never see because they don’t have the money to build a ski slope in their back yard and they don’t have access to wind tunnel training to improve their aerodynamics and they don’t have someone to drive the 5 hours into the mountains for private training on the regular and they don’t have access to the array of nutritionists and trainers and balance coaches and personal sports psychologists and myriad other personnel that spread in the wake of elite athletes like the human train of an immense veil?

And this, I think, is Ellul’s point. The Olympics started as a movement, but the whiff of glory and, more alluringly, dollars has attracted a crippling amount of interests. Maybe this is simply the curse of human endeavor–every good thing eventually attracts the appetites that will crush it. And maybe this is the blessing of the human spirit–ever inventive enough to devise new good things that have not been discovered and mined yet. Sitting in front of whatever coverage NBC decides I’d find most attractive, I find the Olympic myth harder to see in the Olympic machine. It feels like time for a fresh movement. I wonder where the new thing will come from.

*     *     *

In honor of the ragged Olympic spirit, here’s Pearl Jam at their most puerile offering their own thoughts on the ’96 Atlanta games.

Excerpt: Embodied Psalms

I recently wrote a short piece for Think Christian about a less recent mountain biking excursion with my oldest son. The ride was as near a perfect afternoon as I’ve had with him and I’m pleased with how my short essay turned out. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Riding in the slipstream of an almost 7-year-old’s exhilaration as we sped through Louisville’s Turkey Run Park, it clicked that mountain biking is like an embodied psalm. I watched my son, the boy whom, for better or worse, I am helping to mold, and I saw him in a way similar to how God my Father might see me when I, his child, take joy in what he provides. At the same time, I could look at the beauty of the land—the hills, the trees, the creek, the occasional panicked squirrel—and be humbled by the expanse of God’s promiscuous outpouring of creativity. And what are the psalms but attempts to see the world like God sees it, while also bowing before his greatness?

You can read the rest here. And while you’re there, check out their other good work.

Why Winter is the Best Season

Why Winter is the Best Season

People often look at me like I escaped from an asylum when I tell them Winter is my favorite season. These are usually the people who pledge their allegiance to the quasi-pagan sun worship that it is to choose Summer as your favorite. It’s madness, I tell you. And here’s five reasons why:

1) Summer is actually the beginning of the dying of the light.
That’s right, the Summer solstice may be the longest day of the year, but it’s also the beginning of the long descent into darkness. It is a grim day and filled with dread. The Winter Solstice, however, is filled with hope because that first cold dawn following is the first herald of renewal. And we haven’t even started in on the glory of Christmas lights in the neighborhood.

2) Snow is better than rain.
Can you make a rain fort? Have a rain ball fight? Build a rain man? Do you get rain days off from school? Can you shovel rain to earn extra money? No, No, Not unless you’re Dustin Hoffman, No, and No. Snow is the best of all precipitation and it is trademarked by Winter, Inc.

3) Winter has the best holidays.
You can’t beat Christmas. Especially not when combined with Advent. It’s got the best music. It’s got the best decorations. It’s the best. You may point to Easter, which is a good one, but I tell you there is no Easter without Christmas. And Easter comes in the Spring which is at least 50% Winter, anyways.

4) Winter is cold.
This may be a controversial point for some, but hear me out. You know what’s possibly the worst part of Summer (at least in Kentucky)? Mosquitoes. You know what you never see in Winter? Mosquitoes. And if it gets cold enough for long enough, the deep freeze kills off mosquito eggs and makes for a more pleasant Summer. And for the remaining skeptics, I ask you: can you shed enough clothes to cool off when it’s 95 degrees and 95% humidity? No. Can you put on enough blankets to be warm? Yes. Stop whining.

5) Winter is beautiful.
The night sky is never so sharp and clear as on a cold winter night. The sun hangs low in the sky even at midday which fills the south-facing rooms of your home with the best light they’ll get all year. Then there’s the birds. A red cardinal in a skeleton tree, especially one fringed with snow, is nearly unsurpassable. Not to mention chickadees and titmouses. Winter is a visual feast.

***BONUS*** 6) Winter has the best food.
Winter is the season of comfort foods. Steaming pots of chili and thick soups. Pot pies. Baked goods. An order of fish and chips from the Irish Rover tastes better and better the colder it gets outside. Do you sit down with a steaming plate of macaroni and cheese (the thick, casserole kind) in the dead-dog days of August? No.

*     *     *

So that’s it. Winter is definitively the best. The facts are irrefutable. Enjoy the greatest season of them all.

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

So, there’s an image of a bumper sticker making the rounds of the Internet over the past few days. Russel Moore used it as a sounding board to level a sharp and important critique of playing fast and loose with the faith in order to secure a political gain. His starting point is assuming that the bumper sticker is in favor of firearms. But, I think he misread the slogan. He sees the bumper sticker as using Jesus as cover for some mere and short-sighted political agenda. But, what if the sticker is using our love of guns and self-defense to smuggle in the absurdity of such a savior.

I’m saying the sentence, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive today,” works better if you see it as a Trojan horse. jesus gun 2If you chuckle and say, “Hell yeah,” because you think the right to bear arms in self defense would solve a lot of societal ills, then you’ve already taken in an invasive idea that’s meant to undercut you at the heart. Because Jesus wasn’t trying to stay alive. He was trying to save us.

The image of Jesus drawing down on the centurions and shooting his way out of Gethsemane like the OK Corral is patently ridiculous and that’s the whole point. There was something more important to Jesus than his own survival. If Jesus had the same attitude towards guns and self defense as many professing Christians on the political right, we simply wouldn’t have a Savior. It seems, then, pretty urgent to dig into this disconnect. Are there actions on our part that might reveal our survival instinct to actually be an idol?

The question this bumper sticker really asks is not about political liberty vs constraint. That’s how politicians frame the gun debate, and there the argument rages. But, Christian faith always goes further than asking “Can I?” It also asks, “Why do I want to?” That might just be the question Christians ask the least and to tragic results. The question this bumper sticker urges us to confront is where exactly our call to be Christ-like ends and where our call to preserve our own temporal life begins and at what expense.

It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to ask it. Should a Christian kill another person? Is self defense an adequate reason to extinguish the image of God? Is the defense of children or family? Or, is desire to bear arms a sign that love for this world outweighs our faith in its Creator? A symptom of our fear of death preceding our fear of God?

I don’t have an easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t condemn someone who actually did use lethal self defense when they or their family faced actual harm. But, the rest of us only have the theoretical fear of such a catastrophe. And theoretical fear is something that can run rampant and roughshod over our faith if we don’t watch out. It’s here that I absolutely agree with the point this bumper sticker is trying to make*. I cannot universally condemn the use of guns. But I can look on the desire for guns with almost universal suspicion because the fear of death has always threatened to undermine the fear of God. And that’s the real heart issue that the church has to address (and address again and again for each generation because the fear of death takes endless forms).

Is our faith sufficient cause to embrace weakness?

* Incidentally, I also agree with the point Dr. Moore makes in his essay, I just see firearms as the personalized version of the grasp for political power that he calls out. I don’t think you can speak to one without having to speak to the other.

 

 

Reflector

Reflector

You and I, we are all born imitators. We have a special knack for taking our experience and pushing it back out into the world. At the summit of a craggy hike, we look out on the world in miniature and when we have returned to the valley and the world is full-sized again, we find someone and tell them what we saw* apeak the mountain. We use language in an attempt to recreate in our friend the hush and awe we felt in the presence of the panorama. Failing that, at least to stir in them the desire, like our own, to hike up and see it for themselves. Our experience of beauty is like breathing. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this especially in art. When we take something that’s next to nothing—a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of wood or clay—and we shape it into something recognizably human-touched, we imitate the God who took actual nothing and worked it into everything including our blank paper and stacked lumber. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this even in the mundane. Who hasn’t found themselves standing over a sink of dishes humming out snatches of a familiar melody without really thinking about it? Songs come in at our ears and go back out through our voices. In and out. Stories cycle through us, picking up and shedding detail, but arcing along those old, familiar bends. The journey home. The fall and redemption. The restoration of order and justice. The romance. When you tot it all up—from the mundane to the sublime—what is all this work but the imitative life of human culture?

A while back, my church housed a music venue. In the halcyon days of The 930 music venue, one of the shows that I remember best was Bill Frisell alone on the stage with a guitar making sonic magic. So, when I heard that he had recorded a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—a Bob Dylan tune that I had long heard of but only recently actually listened to—I had a listen. The reinvention is sublime, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.

When it comes to an artist who has had their work reinvented and imitated ad infinitum, hard rainthere is only one Bob Dylan. Perhaps it’s a consequence of his being revered and prolific in a way that makes the onlooker feel dizzy and quite lazy, but you flip through any muscian’s body of work and like as not you hit at least one Bob Dylan cover song. In this case of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Frisell strips away the lyrics—a stream of opaque and increasingly ominous imagery punctuated with the invocation of that hard rain that might be a baptism or a judgement—and mines the seam of melody for all its worth and then some. In doing these increasingly complex and noisy variations on Dylan’s theme, Bill Frisell provokes a fresh emotional resonance from the song.

Now, Frisell’s distinctive playing has merit all its own but, honestly, one might find that Dylan’s simple folk melody grows a little repetitive if one didn’t have snatches of his excised lyric haunting you while you listen. The refraction through the prism of surrounding artists so often reaffirms and even magnifies the beauty of the original work. Frisell indeed bends Dylan’s vision in a gorgeous arc, but the cover is also elevated by memory. The source material remains vital.

What we see when Bill Frisell plays Bob Dylan is that some sort of alchemy takes place when we imitate even just other people. We’re a lot like Waldo. Not the guy we hunted in crowded kids books, but the myna bird from Twin Peaks. By mimicking the sounds he’d heard, Waldo added to what was known about who was present when Laura Palmer died. We, too, are mimics in our way and so we can also add to what’s known about the truth. Imitating one another is only the beginning.

It’s important, at this point, to remember that we don’t imitate as a sign of deficiency, a lapse in originality (at least, we don’t always imitate that way, though we must admit that there are eight Fast and Furious movies by now and who can even count how many Transformers movies we’ve been subjected to). We imitate because we are made that way. We are not originators. We are images of God. Reflectors. This is a distinction we often disdain as humility escapes us, but we best represent God in the world when we accept it. We cannot exhale but that we inhale.

As confessed image bearers, we have an opportunity to bear witness. We breathe in the world around us and it combines with the life which the Spirit breathes into us. Then we breathe it all back out. Changed as it is for having mingled for a while in that cauldron of thought and history and desire and dread that is our mind and further refracted for having re-entered the world tuned to the unique skill of our bodies, as distinctive as a thumbprint. Whether in acts of neighborly care, as works of art, or even as the simple routines of our daily life, we have the chance to add to what is known about how God moves in the world. By this overflow, our lives animate God’s work–so often hard to see–even as they are animated by God’s work.

This can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Especially if we are honest about the real-life condition of our hearts suspended in the already/not yet paradox that is our common, limping pursuit of Jesus. Nevertheless, we should take heart. And, we should start small. If you ask me, we should stay small, but that’s an entirely other conversation. But, in a room with people we know, we have so much to see and so much to offer. We can testify how God has worked in the one and only us and we can see how God has worked in one and only others. On this shared peak, we can all gain a larger view of what God can do that we would have ever found deep in the valley of ourselves. This might just be the height of human culture.

 

* It bears noting that the mountain vista will always be bigger in our mind’s eye than in any photograph with its scissored edges and immobilized perspective. And would we rather remember the moment or the photograph?