informal essays

Reflections on 30

One of the weird things about getting older is feeling nostalgic about stuff that’s really not that old. Like, remember back in the good old days, when people didn’t just use their phones to play music off some streaming service they had to pay for or listen to ads, but they actually had a device dedicated to music, filled with songs that you actually owned and could just keep on there, and it couldn’t be interrupted by an onslaught of notifications and it had tons of space and a battery that lasted for days… ah, yes, the golden age of… 2008?

Ok, so that’s nostalgia about a golden possession. What about nostalgia for golden experiences? Not the one-time highlights of life, but those special combinations of people, places and times where something so unique and powerful and formative happened again and again and again… until one day it stopped, and maybe I finally appreciated that I never really appreciated how special that circumstance was until it was over. Remember Cornerstone? Remember house church in Chuck’s basement? Remember those years of leading worship at a small church with my brothers? Remember when Relient K used to play “Which to Bury, Us Or the Hatchet” straight into “Let It All Out” with the extended outro that sounded so sweet at every one of their shows for years until it got retired out of the lineup forever??

I used to wish those old golden experiences could come back, or mourn the fact that they couldn’t. I used to worry about the new golden experiences that replaced them, wanting to hold onto them so they don’t disappear too. Look how special Audiofeed is! It better not go the way of Cornerstone!

But I’m starting to see all these things in a new way. Time passes. Things change. Maybe, like everything else in this life, golden experiences aren’t supposed to last forever. Maybe my brothers and I weren’t all meant to live in the same city forever. Maybe Audiofeed’s not meant to last forever, either. And maybe that’s OK. I’m trying to learn to rest in my present experiences, fully embracing them for what they are now – not out of the fear that they might one day fade away, but out of the acceptance that they will, and out of the comfort that I will always be able to look back on them with joy, holding on to what those experiences taught me, and with the hope that new golden experiences will continue to replace them.

We still got that iPod Classic, by the way. It only comes out every now and then, but it still plays those golden tunes like the good old days, occasionally raising our children on mewithoutYou and the Welcome Wagon. There will come a day when the inexorable laws of physics will have their way with its hard drive, and it will come to an end, while the laws of physics carry on. And it will be OK. But that is not this day. So rock on, 30-year-old Josh. Rock on.

All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.
(1 Peter 1:24-25)

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?…

For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!…

I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever.
(Ecclesiastes)

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informal essays

A Conversation On Immigrant Family Separation

“Man, I am really upset about this family separation thing. Every time I think about a four year old being ripped out of their mother’s arms, taken somewhere they don’t know anybody and have no idea when they’ll see them again, it just breaks my heart. It makes me angry that our government would do this. It makes me really upset that Republicans are supposed to be the party of ‘family values’ and they’re defending this, and Trump has the gall to say, oh it’s so horrible but it’s a Democrat law, when it’s totally Jeff Session’s new zero-tolerance policy!”

“Ok, it’s really sad that these families have to be separated, but… it’s more complicated than that. Look at that policy – there’s nothing in there about family separation. They’re just trying to enforce the law – it’s illegal to cross our borders without permission.”

“Oh, they knew exactly what they were doing. They said family separation was intentionally done as a deterrence! I’m sure there’s plenty of other cruel things we could do as a ‘deterrence’ – but the ends don’t justify the means! Besides, you’re allowed to claim asylum – that’s legal – and there’s no law that you have to separate families while they’re processing those claims – that’s a choice!”

“They’re not allowed to detain kids with parents more than 20 days, thanks to this consent decree from 1997, when Clinton was president… Maybe that’s what Trump meant – give him a break – this stuff is complicated. And you’re supposed to claim asylum at official locations… What happens is people just cross and get caught and go, oh, asylum, asylum, and then Obama would just release families and say, come back for your court date, and they’d just disappear. That’s foolish.”

“Well, maybe so, but it’s not like the government makes it easy. Do you know how many official locations there are, or where they are? The President gets a pass on not understanding the complexity of the system but immigrants fleeing for their lives are supposed to navigate it all perfectly? Do you even know anyone who’s actually come across to claim asylum?”

“No… Do you?”

“Well, no, but I read this article about a Honduran mother who crossed with her kids… It said she was being targeted by hit men in Honduras who had killed several of her family… She crossed and purposefully flagged down the Border Patrol to claim asylum and they were like, actually, we’re prosecuting you criminally and separating you from your kids! I mean, sure, people may take advantage of the system, but there are also lots of people whose lives are seriously in danger… and now we’re like, hey, let’s add this super cruel trauma on top of all the cruel dangers you’ve already been facing. Did you listen to the audio of the little kids crying for Mama and Papa… How can it not break your heart that we’re doing this?”

“Look, I know it sounds cruel. It’s really tragic. I wish we didn’t have to do stuff like this. But we separate children from parents all the time in this country when their parents break the law. These immigrants are breaking the law by entering illegally – it’s not really any different.”

“I think it’s way different! When American citizens go to jail, their children aren’t usually being detained somewhere else – at least they’re with other family members they know and trust. And the parents and children know where each other are, and how to visit and communicate, and when they’ll be back together again. These immigrants are just being torn apart with no contact or knowledge of anything… that’s gotta be complete terror for these children!”

“You know, if they choose to be deported, they won’t be separated – that’s a choice, too! So is coming here in the first place – choosing to bring their children through all these risks and then breaking the law and entering illegally. I can’t imagine doing that and getting upset at the consequences. If they want to come, they should come here legally.”

“Yeah, but… it’s more complicated than that. Have you ever driven past the speed limit because of an emergency? Did you need to be separated from your children for breaking that law? These people are fleeing for their lives, it’s not as simple as just ‘choosing’ to stay in their dangerous places, or go back to them.. Do you think people travel hundreds of dangerous miles with their children for fun? I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to be in such a terrible situation where you feel like trying to get to the United States is the best and safest option you have for your children… Besides, who says the consequences have to be so cruel? Asylum is a legal part of our process! And if you want people to come legally, shouldn’t you advocate for making the legal immigration system easier?”

“Ok, it’s all a very sad situation, but come on, it’s not like we have room for everybody in the world here. Those bleeding heart liberals hate to admit reality, but we just can’t help everybody. Why is the burden always on us, anyway? A lot of these immigrants are traveling from Central America all the way through Mexico to get here. Why isn’t anyone talking about why Mexico won’t take them?”

“That’s a good point, I wish there wasn’t so much burden on us, but I don’t see how that excuses our own mistreatment… I know with that Honduran mother, she said the hit men followed her into Mexico, so she didn’t feel safe there, either. Besides, don’t you think this is the greatest country in the world? The land of unparalleled opportunity? Shouldn’t we be proud of the fact that people want to come here for a shot at that?”

“If we didn’t have laws, this country wouldn’t be the great country that everybody wants to move to in the first place. At the end of the day, we have these laws. We have to enforce them.”

“But what if the laws are unjust? If enforcing your law means you take super oppressed people and oppress them further by ripping their families apart – and creating this big government bureaucracy of a day care – which sounds like the kind of thing conservatives are always saying government is terrible at, by the way – don’t you think maybe that’s a clue that there’s a problem in your laws somewhere? I’m not talking about letting anybody and everybody in. I’m just talking about not being oppressive and cruel about it.”

“Well, why are you so worked up about Trump on this? If you look at everything Obama did on immigration, he did some pretty cruel stuff too. But the media is so biased, they gave him a pass, and then they crucify Trump for just trying to enforce the laws… Besides, I don’t think they really care about these immigrants, they just want to turn them into Democratic voters.”

“I don’t really care which side is the most biased or hypocritical about treating immigrants like human beings… as much as I care about treating immigrants like human beings! If the media is finally exposing inhumane stuff, maybe that’s a good thing! Besides, Trump’s definitely taking all of this to waaaay higher levels… And there’s plenty of bias to go around, anyway. You want to enforce the law? Why I don’t ever hear anyone upset at businesses that hire illegal immigrants? They’re breaking the law, too, aren’t they? Where’s the outrage and ‘zero-tolerance’ policies for them?”

“Well, they are cracking down some on that too. I can’t help what everybody focuses on.”

“Ok, well it just seems like I always here people being way more upset at the immigrants. If anything, people should be more upset at the businesses… Immigrants are breaking the law to save their lives… The businesses are breaking the law to save some money… and hire people that won’t be able to use the legal system if they get hurt or mistreated. To these immigrants, it must feel like, ok, so you’ll let people hire us to take these hard jobs that Americans apparently don’t want to do anyway, but now when we come to take those jobs just to try to achieve a better life you’re mad at us? Is just easier to get upset at people breaking the law when they’re not Americans… or maybe when they’re not white?”

“Oh, look, I was wondering when you were gonna play the race card…”

“No, no, I’m just saying, we all have a natural tendency to care more about our own groups than other groups… It goes back to the Jews and Samaritans… and Jesus’ radical parable of loving your neighbor as yourself.”

“Well, if you’re gonna go there, Jesus was all about individual compassion, not about what governments should do. Like Sessions said, Romans 13 says to obey the government.”

“Well, if you want to go there, Romans 13 also says ‘Love does no harm to a neighbor.’ God definitely told governments what not to do – like oppressing the vulnerable – look at Daniel 4, or Jeremiah 22. And for what it’s worth, the major place in the Bible where God gave instructions to a ‘government’ about what to do, he told them to go out of their way to look after foreigners, because he knew they were vulnerable to being mistreated. And speaking of protecting foreigners… why does it seem like Republicans only want to ‘enforce the law’ when it’s against immigrants, but they ignore it when it’s the other way around, like when Sheriff Arpaio broke the law to mistreat immigrants, where ‘enforcing the law’ would have meant protecting them? And then they look the other way again when Trump pardons the guy for his wrongdoing!”

“Well, I’m not saying the Republicans are perfect, either. Besides, Trump just signed an executive order to stop the family separations… are you happy now?”

“I mean, that’s better than nothing… It still seems all wrong, though… It doesn’t cancel out the zero-tolerance policy, it adds another layer on top of it… And I’m still reading articles that the government has no real plan to get all the separated families back together… we’re still getting reports about toddlers standing trial on their own… Toddlers, man! That’s crazy! It’s not like our only choices here are ‘enforce no laws’ or ‘put toddlers in jail-day-care’… There are lots of ways to improve things without being oppressive and cruel… We don’t have to choose between foolish policy and wicked policy… That’s what I just can’t get over… I know that it’s all complicated and there’s blame and bias to go around and all that… but I just can’t get over all this cruel treatment that just seems so unnecessary… That seems to go against that higher, ultimate law of Justice… What if this is our Auschwitz? Our Japanese internment camps? I’m sure people were sitting around back then, too, having polite conversations about the pros and cons of the government forcing masses of people out of their own homes for the sake of national security – people who conveniently somehow never look quite like us… What if our grandkids will look back and wonder why we didn’t take to the streets and demand an end to this injustice? What if this is that?”

“And what if it’s not? What if it’s just a complicated mess and you just want to get worked up and feel like a savior while serving the interests of some other agenda? What are you gonna do, anyway? Go heckle a cabinet member?”

“No, I don’t agree with that… I do think the right often misses Jesus’ radical concern for the oppressed and vulnerable, but I think the left often misses Jesus’ radical response to the oppressor. ‘Defend the rights of the poor and needy‘, yes, but also ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you‘…. Instead of the heckling, what if it had been a group of Christians praying out and calling for repentance? Instead of ‘O Nebuchadnezzar,’ how about ‘O Huckabeesander, break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.’ I don’t know… Call my senators about bills to change things? Donate to that organization in El Paso or one of the other organizations trying to help separated families? Post this imaginary conversation to social media? It is a complicated mess. Love is a complicated mess. There’s always risk of error, no matter the issue. But I guess I’d rather err on the side of love. Love for my neighbor. Love for human beings in need.”

books

Review: Why I Left / Why I Stayed

Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

Well-known evangelical author Tony Campolo, and his ex-evangelical humanist son Bart, trade chapters in a book that’s meant to be representative of the conversations they had after Bart left the faith. It’s not so much an apologetic debate (though there is certainly some of that), but more about relating their personal narratives and exploring what they each see as the philosophical implications of their beliefs. They discuss believing (or doubting) the basic tenets of Christianity, the pursuit of moral goodness in communities with or without God, the significance of death, and more.

Most of the people I know in this situation are evangelical Baby Boomer parents with ex-evangelical children. From the little I knew of both men prior to reading this book, I had assumed the Campolos more or less fit that scenario. But the Campolos are a generation removed from the audience they hope to encourage; Tony is north of eighty, and Bart north of fifty, the latter de-converting after decades of youth-rousing ministry following his father’s footsteps. Another interesting difference is that while most of the ex-evangelical Millennials I know have embraced a social-justice ethic in stark contrasts with their conservative forebears, the Campolos had both embraced that concern for the poor and marginalized from within Christianity, as part of their holistic understanding of the gospel. Of course, every individual and family narrative is unique, and readers will no doubt find fascinating and thought-provoking comparisons and contrasts. Despite the short book’s abundant weaknesses, it may serve a useful starting point for some families in similar situations.

Bart’s chapters are more articulate, as Tony himself admits (unfortunately, and perhaps a reflection of generational distance, I thought many of Tony’s arguments would seem trite and stale to my secular friends). I found myself in agreement with a lot of Bart’s remarks. I enjoyed his thoughts about death as a motivator to make the most of our limited time, the perspective of appreciating the very fact that we are alive at all, and the value of vicariously enjoying the joys and successes of others over resentment and bitterness – though I see all of that as perfectly fitting with a Christian worldview. Even beyond that, though, my overall outlook on the world is more “humanistic” than it used to be, but I find none of that at odds with my Christianity – in fact, I see it as the fundamental driver of that outlook (more on that below), and I would agree with Tony in affirming those things as evidence of the work of God within humanists like Bart, despite their firm denials.

I identified with the youthful radical passion of Christian Bart and his closest friends, and that attraction to Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” whatever the rest of the church seemed to be doing. But Bart saw a lot of suffering through his inner-city ministry, and he cited some of these up-close-and-personal encounters with the problem of evil as a major factor in his de-conversion. (While I haven’t been affected in the same way, I can relate in a parallel way; the greater my awareness of the poverty and persecution of deeply faithful Christians outside the United States, the greater my inoculation against the many flavors of prosperity gospel within this country.)

Many Christians can’t fathom alternative bases of morality without the Bible. Bart argues that even Bible-based moral systems are more subjective than Christians think, and he does a fair job defending his basic interest in human flourishing. But I’ve already trod that ground (a la Sam Harris), and I want to move beyond the binary question of whether secular people can be “evil” or “good” (from a humanistic standpoint, that is – from a Calvinistic standpoint we’re all totally depraved), and ask the more interesting question of how good people can be.

Considering the widening circles of concern that Bart alludes to – i.e. self, family, nation, species – I acknowledge that secular morality can rationally extend concern to all of those circles, yet I also assert that the level of concern naturally drops off with each level. The question of how good people can be could also be thought of as a question of how steeply a person’s concern for others drops off once they get past their immediate family. A “weak goodness” doesn’t want to hurt people, and hopes all people will prosper, but isn’t going to sacrifice too many personal conveniences to make that happen. In other words, it’s a goodness with steep slopes. By contrast, a “strong goodness” is what I see in the Christian ideal, which radically flattens those slopes. Jesus redefines the “neighbor” that you love to include foreigners and enemies. Every service for the “least” of humans is equivalent to serving Jesus himself. It all hearkens back to the original declaration that all human beings – male and female – are created in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, the lives of many Christians only reflect a “weak goodness,” but it is only the growing conviction of the true message of Christianity that has led me to pursue a stronger, flatter goodness.

Bart clearly still desires a radical love-your-neighbor-as-yourself “strong goodness,” but (in my view) he no longer has a compelling foundation to logically defend much more than a “weak goodness.” Bart agrees with Tony that humans “are hard-wired for heroism and can feel truly happy and fulfilled only when called upon to sacrificially use their gifts and energies in the service of a noble cause much bigger than themselves,” and Bart seems to think this truth justifies a global concern for the preservation of the human species. Clearly it does for some – look no further than the budding Effective Altruist movement. But while it’s all well and good to describe happy conversations with college students who already want to be “good without god,” I wondered what he would say to those whose concern for others drops off a steep slope once they get past their own selves and families.

The universal image of God is implicit in creationist theology, and it can be harmonized (with some challenges) into evolutionary theology, but the atheist’s evolution, with none of that divine intervention, seems to me to have plenty of justifications for steeper slopes. Is it necessarily best for the human species as a whole for all of its individuals to flourish, when that’s not true for any other evolved species under the sun? Without the image of God uniting us, without Jesus teaching that to serve the least is to serve Himself… shouldn’t different groups eventually diverge into separate species with separate outcomes?

Surely I’m not the only one who would at least entertain such thoughts apart from Christian doctrine. I view the post-Christian culture wars between social-justice humanists and alt-right nationalists through this paradigm, and I’m not convinced the humanists have much that’s compelling to persuade the nationalists to flatten their slopes; after all, they think they’re heroically saving civilization, too! The best at that flattening game right now, by far, is Jordan Peterson – and it’s no surprise to me that he’s doing it by digging into the astonishingly deep wells of the Bible, and cautiously leaving the door open to the truths of its fundamental metaphysical propositions!

Unlike many who have suffered more traumatic and tragic exits, Bart still has a largely positive view of the church, describing it as “one of the greatest community-building forces in history.” He now wants to recreate that community with his secular students, and he thinks it’s easier to build his secular community because he doesn’t have to drag along the supernatural propositions he always struggled to believe. But I’m not sure how interested I would be without the supernatural.

It’s not merely that I’m a selfish being who needs the threat of divine retribution to be good; I suspect I would maintain some form of self-interested “weak goodness,” and probably even pursue some level of life-fulfilling heroism. But at some point the principles of diminishing returns and the unavoidable uncertainty of outcomes would join forces with my selfish justifications. At least for me personally, to radically flatten the slope of my concern for all human beings, I don’t just need divine motivation. I need divine grace for my struggles and failures to live up to those ideals. I need divine power to guide me in specific directions toward fruitful opportunities. And most of all, I need the divine hope of ultimate victory to sustain me in spite of all the evil and suffering that remains.

I was surprised to read Bart claim that he’s still “very much attracted to the idea of a good and loving God who understands all that we don’t” and “utterly triumphs over both sin and death in the end,” and that he would “gladly swallow” a magic pill that would enable him to “truly believe all that again.” I found this statement hard to reconcile with his later arguments for some of the superiorities of his new worldview, and wondered how much of that was motivated reasoning. Perhaps he’s missing that divine hope more than he knows.

But I suppose Bart might say God didn’t give him enough of that divine hope and power, and without it his faith was unsustainable. What’s fascinating to me is that he hasn’t lost his desire for “strong goodness” which was always a part of his Christianity. I think I would be the opposite – without divine hope and power, I think my more recent desire for “strong goodness” would be unsustainable, and I would at least retreat at some level towards the weaker goodness of more nominal Christianity. But it’s also hard for me to guess because I think of my faith itself as having other independent supports. (Speaking of that, while both Campolos touched on the role of personal emotional experiences, with Tony seeing them as evidence of supernatural connection and Bart seeing them has nothing more than brain chemistry, I was surprised to see neither take a position on claims of personal miracles or other signs of external interventions, which have always played a strong role in my own apologetic.)

Of course, for all my armchair psychoanalytic attempts to rationally compare and contrast my worldview with Bart’s, I thought Tony made a good point about the “plausibility structures” of the people and influences with which we surround ourselves and which inform all of our beliefs more than we like to admit. Yet the way Tony described himself as “choosing” to believe felt a little wishy-washy and unsatisfying to me. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed or disagreed with either man, but they did give me things to think about, and I applaud their efforts at modeling healthy relationships and conversations around disagreements about the most important things in the universe.

reviews

Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me.

If historical films Selma and Loving forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present in the United States when my father was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy forced me to grapple with the level of racism and injustice that was still present when I was a child. The book is a memoir of sorts, describing Stevenson’s work leading the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other disfavored people, especially the wrongfully convicted and disproportionately sentenced, particularly in Alabama and nearby Deep South states.

The book’s primary narrative follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, spending several debilitating years on death row. The twists and turns of the story are worthy of a movie, from the shocking actions of local officials to EJI’s dogged efforts to uncover the truth and extract justice for Walter McMillian. (I’ve always been skeptical of the populist liberal narrative that elite whites exploit divisions between poor whites and poor blacks for their own benefit, but the role of the delinquent Ralph Meyers makes for a fascinating parable of that very theme.)

While Walter’s experience is manifestly an outlier for 1980’s Alabama, it is painfully obvious that it would not have been possible without the bigotry of local officials or even of the general white population in the county. Nor is the suffering limited to Walter as an individual. If Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of gang violence in the inner city on whole black communities, Just Mercy starkly displayed the compounding destructive effects of injustice at the hands of the government through the criminal justice system. A community full of people who were at the barbecue that solidified Walter’s alibi was crushed with a heavy hopelessness that such a blatant miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen, compounding upon their shared historical pain even in spite of the progress of the civil rights movement.

And yet I still believe in that continuing stream of progress, much of which Stevenson has had a direct hand in bringing about. I was inspired by his work as well as encouraged by my (perhaps but hopefully not naive) confidence that most of the local officials’ disgraces toward Walter would not be tolerated today. From Supreme Court decisions to the continually evolving attitudes of the American public, our nation is both progressing and full of opportunities for us to play a part in the progress that still desperately needs to be manifested. Stevenson’s impacts on individual lives, and the radiating influence of those impacts, gave me much to ponder about the tension between pursuing small things and big things in the name of truth and justice.

Stevenson’s tellings of recent history have plenty of relevance for today. The national media’s outside attention to Walter’s case reinforced local opinions against him, reflecting defensive attitudes that could still be felt during last year’s special senate election in Alabama. Yet this bitter divisiveness was contrasted with a beautiful account of a proud Confederate correctional officer who was completely transformed from his hateful attitude toward Stevenson and one of his clients after hearing the client’s backstory, unleashing a powerful empathy from their shared hurtful experiences in the foster system. Time and again, telling people they’re evil racists is far less effective than telling the stories that unlock the irresistible compassion of our shared humanity. (As Stevenson’s grandmother always said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close.”)

Much of the book is more about class than race. The stories offer a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system, and all the complications that go behind and beyond a simple “innocent” or “guilty” verdict, and the huge disparities in outcomes that often hinge on whether or not you have a good lawyer. Upon finishing Stevenson’s book, it is hard not to agree with his conclusion that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

While I acknowledge difficult questions around the nature of justice for victims of violence, the book deepened my personal opposition to the death penalty. “Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.” There are probably few examples of the sad incongruence of the evangelical “Bible Belt” and the land of “Jim Crow” that are more searing than the image of a young black teenager climbing into the electric chair and made to sit atop a Bible for his execution since he was too short for the restraints. “Let he who is without sin,” indeed. Yet I also smiled to read of the old Methodist couple who took in a released youngster, determined to redeem him from all the horrors he had lived. That is the sort of neighborly, Christ-like love that is truly our only hope.

The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. – Bryan Stevenson

books

Favorite Books I Read in 2017

1. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and‎ Brandon J. O’Brien (2012). Don’t judge this book by its weird cover; it’s so good I read it twice. Shows how the way we read the Bible – and the way we criticize it – is more influenced by our cultural backgrounds than we realize, with plenty of mind-blowing examples covering language differences, honor/shame culture, paradigms about time, and many, many more, along with encouragement for overcoming such biases.

 

2. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lu (2014 – English translation). Lu’s widely acclaimed Chinese science fiction trilogy (first book pictured) is a wild fast-paced thriller, cleverly weaving everything from the history of mathematics to the physics of interstellar travel to the sociology of alien interactions in a massive yet engaging story. The atheistic worldview tends more fatalistic than utopian, with the fates of entire civilizations whip-lashing darkly between unexpected rescue and utter annihilation, the ultimate outcomes ever unpredictable. I enjoyed this series on scientific, spiritual, and leisurely levels all at the same time.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi (2014). A young man’s fascinating personal story of conversion from Islam to Christianity, through the dovetailing of intellectual apologetics and supernatural dreams, all in the context of a relationship with a great friend. In addition to being inspired and challenged, Christians who don’t currently know any Muslims can greatly benefit from the informed window into a compassionate American Muslim family’s life.

 

4. Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design by Perry Marshall (2015). Sort of an intelligent design guy – sort of an evolution guy – definitely a Christian – Marshall doesn’t fit into normal people’s boxes. He believes random mutations can’t lead to new life forms, and that cells are so complex that they point to a creator…. who gave those cells amazing tools to intelligently re-program their own DNA in response to new challenges and make evolution possible! Marshall popularizes the “natural genetic engineering” work of biologists like James Shapiro, making complicated concepts easy to understand. While critics on both sides question the implications, any science enthusiast – whatever your views – should enjoy reading about some of the really cool things we’ve been learning about cells in recent years.

5. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright (2006). A sort of Mere Christianity for a new generation, British scholar N. T. Wright lays out the fundamentals of the faith in a fresh and friendly fashion, describing how things have gone wrong in the world and how Jesus Christ is the solution, decorated with Lewis-like insights, analogies, and other delightful and encouraging remarks along the way. If you’ve become discouraged or disillusioned in recent years, you may find this book rejuvenating.

 

6. Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops by Charles Campisi (2017). As chief of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” Campisi describes more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than many on either side of the policing debates may expect. Recommended for those who want to be more informed on these important matters (accompanied by Corey Pegues’ Once A Cop for an even more complete picture on the value of leadership, and the challenges of racial issues, related to making positive changes in New York City.)

7. Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg (2009). A fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam from a conservative perspective. I learned a lot about the recent history of Iran’s radical leaders, the impressive (and underappreciated) actions of moderate leaders to stamp out radicalism and reform Islam, and the accelerating growth of Christianity in the Arab world. This book is not short, but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish.

 

8. Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox by Stephen Webb (2002). This is a really fun book that describes the history of the Fermi Paradox (the naturalist’s expectation that the universe should be full of life if there’s nothing special about its origin on Earth), and runs through a bunch of proposed explanations for its apparent absence, explaining why so many of the “obvious” ones aren’t that satisfying to many of the world’s top scientific minds. A mix of fun speculation and serious physics perhaps in the vein of Randall Munroe…

 

9. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee (2003). Packed with scientific information from cosmology, biology, geology, and more, this book highlights the the numerous properties that make life on Earth seem so special, even from a purely naturalistic perspective. The numerous long-term external dangers, and the internal connections between life and the oceans and atmosphere, combined with the numerous major extinction events in the conventional history, showed me that both attaining and maintaining life on a planet for billions of years is a much more amazing and wonderful “act of creation” than I had ever imagined.

10. Dear White Christian by Aaron Layton (2017). This short book by a Christian African-American leader in St. Louis is an honest, humble effort at reconciling our region’s racial divides. It does not present itself as the end-all be-all of these conversations, but perhaps the beginning for any white Christians interested in trying to see things from another person’s perspective.

 

 

Honorable Mentions:

Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace (2013)

Is God A Mathematician? by Mario Livio (2009)

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. (2017)

informal essays

I Have Been Dismayed And Troubled

“Recently I have been dismayed and troubled about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment”
Dr. James Dobson, radio ad for Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama senate

Oh, Dr. Dobson. Oh, church. Oh, Jesus.

Where do I begin?

I have been dismayed and troubled to see an honorable Christian man, who devoted decades of his life to raising Christian children and defending them from predators, now show more concern for a politician facing credible allegations of predatory sexual behavior than for the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of the young women he is accused of assaulting.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians dismiss these accusations as “attacks” by the “Washington establishment” or “liberal media,” when many of the stories come from local, conservative, Republican, Trump-voting Alabamans, with Mr. Moore’s interest in young girls corroborated by his co-workers, retired police officers, former mall workers, and more.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians condemn other politicians and pundits for rushing to judgment, when many waited to hear Moore’s defense, and only after his suspicious and unconvincing non-denials decided to withdraw their support.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see Mr. Moore’s evasive answers to Sean Hannity’s questions, who when asked if he dated 16-year-olds as a grown man, did not flat-out deny it but only said wasn’t his “customary behavior,” and “If I did, I’m not going to dispute anything, but I don’t remember anything like that,” and “I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother,” a telling statement for someone coming from a very traditional conservative Christian culture, where permission was generally granted through the headship of the father, suggesting that he very well may have preyed on vulnerable young women from broken single-parent homes, especially given one of the accuser’s claims that he met her while she was at the courthouse for a child custody hearing in 1991, which, by the way, was confirmed in the historical records by the media before they published the story.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see conservative Christians, not only downplaying and rejecting the evidence against Mr. Moore and spreading spurious fake news and unsubstantiated conspiracies in his defense, but even saying that if the accusations were true that they would still support Mr. Moore, twisting Scriptures far out of context to do so, because of the horrors of allowing anyone in the Democratic party to win an elected office.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see so many white evangelicals, who last year jumped from being the least likely to the most likely religious group to say that someone with bad personal character can be a good politician, still showing no limits to the Biblical values they will submit to the gods of political idolatry, even when the stakes are far lower than the presidency, even when the opposing candidate has been far less demonized.

I have been dismayed and troubled to see that while Hollywood, for years denigrated as the unwholesome progenitor of moral decay, raises its ethical standards and purges sexual predators from its halls, Christian Republicans continue to lower their own. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” (1 Corinthians 5:1)

And yet.

I have been comforted and encouraged to be reminded from our company with the Corinthians that this is nothing new, but that we have been dealing with these kinds of issues since the beginning of our faith.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist’s Russell Moore, taking principled and uncompromised stands against such immorality, abuse, and hypocrisy.

I have been comforted and encouraged that God is preserving a remnant that has not bowed down to Baal, that has not rejected the teachings of their fathers but will diligently seek to csrry them farther than they did, despite their flaws, even as their fathers, despite their flaws, carried them farther than their flawed fathers before them.

I have been comforted and encouraged to see that God is still at work all over the world, calling hundreds of thousands in the Middle East to himself through supernatural dreams and visions, increasing the spread of his glory through clay vessels from underground China to charismatics in Brazil, and awakening comfortable Westerners to deeper understandings of the treasures of his kingdom.

I have been comforted and encouraged to know that we do not wrestle against flesh, or blood, or Democrats, or Republicans, but against the spiritual powers and principalities of hell, which shall not prevail against God’s building of his church, or the increase of the knowledge of his glory until it fills the earth as the waters cover the seas. Praise the Lord. Amen.

books

Review: Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg

This is a very fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam and its implications for the world’s future. The book is divided into three sections covering “Radical” terrorists, moderate “Reformers,” and “Revivalists” converting to Christianity. Joel Rosenberg has a conservative right-wing perspective that strengthens the book in some places while weakening it in others, but the book’s greatest value is the vast content derived from direct, personal correspondence with people all over the world – Muslims, Christians, US government figures, Middle Eastern leaders, and more.

The “Radicals” section focuses on the history of Iran since the 1979 revolution and the ensuing effects on terrorist activity. There is a lot of really useful information here for anyone who wants to have a better understanding and context for current events involving Iran. That said, while I agree with Rosenberg that many dangerously underestimate the risks of Islamic terrorism, I think his bias may have overestimated the risk, which I think is borne out by the hindsight of the near decade since the book’s publication (Iran was apparently not 1-2 years away from a nuclear bomb, and the radical Ahmadinejad is no longer in power. In general I think Rosenberg’s missed expectations or interpretations may have been affected by placing too much emphasis on people’s spoken words, including some admittedly concerning poll results, rather than people’s revealed preferences through their actions, perhaps combined with potential nuances lost between languages and cultures.) Nevertheless, it’s a solid section and I learned a lot.

The “Reformers” section addresses not merely “moderate” Muslims as a general group – which Rosenberg says don’t get nearly enough attention or respect – but specifically focuses on Muslim government leaders across the Middle East and Africa, and their inspiring pro-active efforts to stamp out radical ideology and promote democratic freedoms in their countries. The king of Morocco is one such hero, but the star figure is Iraq’s first president Talabani, an experienced Kurdish Muslim seeking to unite his country’s divided groups against terrorism while building a relationship with Israel. This was the best information I’ve ever read on moderate Islam from any perspective, and it not only taught me a lot but made me very excited about the future political prospects for numerous Islamic countries. The author’s political bias shows through here with his unequivocal defense of the Iraq war, and US military interventions more generally, but he made a very compelling case for the positive outcomes of such American partnerships with Middle Eastern moderates. I don’t know if this information is so unfamiliar because the right doesn’t like to praise moderate Muslims and the left doesn’t like to praise Bush’s military adventures, but this section significantly impacted my views on the subject.

The final “Revivalists” section covers the accelerating growth of Christianity in Muslim countries. It talks about the supernatural dreams and visions that are well-known to anyone remotely familiar with this subject, and the different strategies and emphases of converted Muslim evangelists across the Middle East. The book’s earlier background about the effects of the Iranian Revolution helped me understand how the widespread disillusion among the largely nominal Muslim Iranian citizenry has created a wide-open door for the power of the Gospel, and, in contrast to some of the more fiery figures on the right, Rosenberg uses this section to highlight the crucial Christian themes of “loving your neighbor” and “loving your enemies.” The section’s primary weakness comes from trying to find too specific of connections to Biblical eschatology in current events, as the hindsight of a decade bears out. Overall, however, the section confirmed my existing optimism for the spiritual future of the Middle East.

With hundreds of pages packed full of information, this book is not a short read – but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish. If you’re interested in a solid book from a Christian conservative perspective that will greatly improve your understanding of Islam in today’s world, I highly recommend it.

books

Review: Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman

I tried to give Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the Gospel texts as unbiased a hearing as possible by listening to the audiobook of Jesus, Interrupted. Not that I am fully unbiased, but I at least feel like I’m at a place where I might be less biased about Biblical criticisms, and generally more open to progressive interpretations, than I have ever been. I made it more than halfway through but was unable to finish, after too many frustrating arguments that seemed no more enlightened than the very fundamentalism the author was critiquing.

A few notes:

  • Ehrman is emphatic that there are real discrepancies between the Gospels which ignorant Christians overlook by never taking the time to read passages side-by-side and notice their obvious inconsistencies. He promotes some interesting examples, but the fundamental flaw in his argument that there are irreconcilable discrepancies is that they require not just modern Christians but the original readers and compilers of the Bible to have been unaware of them. He even argues for discrepancies within the book of Luke that would have required Luke himself to be unaware of them. It has always seemed more reasonable to me that potential discrepancies are a clue, not that the texts are errant, but that we are not approaching the texts the same way the original readers did. (The book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes has certainly reinforced this idea for me.)
  • One type of alleged discrepancy regards the order of events in different tellings of the same story. Ehrman’s simplistic dismissals actually reminded me of young earth creationist (YEC) arguments alleging that there are geological layers in the wrong order, which prove the whole column is totally false. At a simple glance, the order does seem wrong in some cases, but there are more informed, nuanced explanations that account for more complexities that make sense, suggesting that certain parts can be out of order without falsifying the integrity of the total system. (In fact, there are even YEC interpretations that accept the order of the geological layers. In general, many of Ehrman’s complaints about the Bible reminded me of some forms of YEC complaints about modern science.)
  • Sometimes, Ehrman would set up straw men arguments. He would claim a discrepancy in the text, describe a bad explanation and dismiss it, while ignoring better explanations (example: Peter and the “six” crows to explain two different denial stories)
  • Some of Ehrman’s discrepancies were not event-based but claims of general thematic or theological differences. Leaving aside the question of whether thematic differences can simply be expressing different aspects of a complex truth, some of the claims simply felt like cherry-picking. Ehrman claims a discrepancy between Jesus’ anguish in Mark and his confidence in Luke – but Luke records his Gethsemane prayer, which certainly seems plenty anguished to me.
  • Ehrman’s criticisms of Paul’s letter felt no stronger. If 2 Thesslanonians is truly discrepant from 1 Thessalonians, why didn’t the early church notice it? There is an interesting point that Ephesians and Colossians seem to use different sentence structures; 10% of their sentences are “long” while Galatians and Philippians only have one each. Misreading Scripture suggests the common cultural practice of collaboration could easily account for these kinds of differences while still maintaining the truth of Paul’s direct, personal involvement.

Overall, while I believe there are many Biblical passages that may not be intended in as quite the literal, sequential, precise narrative sense that is the expectation of modern readers, I remain unconvinced that there is evidence to suggest that the texts could not have been divinely inspired or may have been subject to forgery, etc.

books

Review: Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Provides nuance to the story of mass incarceration in a way that challenges simplistic liberal and conservative narratives around racism, from the experienced perspective of a black public defense lawyer. It describes how and why punitive laws were built piece by piece throughout the country in response to drug and crime crises, specifically the role played by black leaders in majority-black cities.

The book details the growing alarm in black communities over rising crime and drug crises in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that led to an increasing willingness to endorse harsher criminal justice measures in the face of limited options. The August 1979 cover of Ebony said “Black on Black Crime: The Causes, The Consequences, The Cures.” In another instance, “Rev. Jesse Jackson… pointed out that more blacks had been killed by other blacks in one year than had been lynched throughout history.” Eric Holder was an instrumental pioneer of pretext-stop policing, which ended up disproportionately punishing blacks for minor infractions, on the hopes that it would contain gun crime.

A chapter on the history of black policing taught me that black people were not even allowed to be police officers in many cities until halfway through the 20th century, and even then faced explicit discrimination and restrictions, such as not being allowed to arrest white people, and even after explicit racist practices were removed, unofficial discrimination continued for decades.

The book ends with the somewhat bittersweet hope that the excesses of mass incarceration can be undone, over time, just as it was built, piece by painstaking piece.

books

Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.