Levels of Christianity

I did not grow up going to church or really having any religion taught to me, so in matters of faith I
have come to own what I believe through my own process of investigation and evaluation.  I have now been a Christian for over a quarter of a century, but continue to keep an open mind that adheres to absolute truths but also considers different ways of looking at the world.  This may sound utterly banal, but it is set in contrast to those who have believed one thing all their lives and process everything through that belief system, as well as those who have no single anchor to their worldview.

But enough meandering...today's post is more narrowly about the Christian faith.  It seems to me that there are three levels to owning such a faith.  (Obviously, there are an infinite number of gradations around and in between these levels.)

First is thinking of it as a collection of honored traditions.  In this country, that means Santa and Christmas trees, going to church on Easter, and having a shared repository of Bible stories from which to make life analogies and derive some moral guidance.  A lot of people in the US who call themselves Christians are this kind of Christian.

Second is thinking of it as a unified worldview.  In other words, how the world works and how/why I ought to behave is anchored by the teachings of the Bible.  Many people in this country are at least partially influenced by the Bible when it comes to issues of morality, guilt, forgiveness, relationships, and life after death.  At this level, there may be room to consider your perspective simply one of many possible ones, with other competing perspectives not inherently better or worse.

Third is thinking of it as a salvation story.  At this level, the fundamental truth as it relates to people is that we are irreparably fallen, and that there is a singular and non-negotiable way to redemption.  To fold the previous level into this level, this is the key piece that unifies this particular worldview, that there is such a thing as the need for salvation and that there is such a thing as a savior who secured that salvation for us. 

Inclusivity and tolerance are rightly upheld as important traits to a vibrant society.  Sadly, there have been many times, both in the past and in the present, that Christians who adhere to a specific explanation about God and man and sin and atonement have perverted that belief into a mean-spirited or even violent response towards those who believe differently.

I recall meeting someone on a trip overseas who, when I had extended an invitation to join a Bible discussion I would be hosting, lit into me and said, "I hate how you guys think that if you aren't a Christian then you're going to hell, and that yours is the only way to heaven!"  I admit I was taken aback at so charged a statement, especially since we had just met and our interaction had been otherwise pleasant.  I could only muster the following response, which in retrospect would still be my response: "In my understanding of the fallenness of humanity, I marvel that there is a way at all."

My level of Christianity has more space than you might think.  There is enough room for any who conclude that there is such a thing as sin, that they are (like me) sinful, that there is a consequence to that condition, and that (like me) they are on their own helpless to do anything about it.

You may disagree, perhaps vehemently, and that is your right and I respect that.  Even as this is where my beliefs live now, I continue to keep an open mind to better understand the perspectives of others.  And so my process of investigation and evaluation continues, as it has my whole life.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XCIV

Here's three excerpts from a book I recently read, "Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay:

I am marked, in so many ways, by what I went through. I survived it, but that isn’t the whole of the story. Over the years, I have learned the importance of survival and claiming the label of “survivor,” but I don’t mind the label of “victim.” I also don’t think there’s any shame in saying that when I was raped, I became a victim, and to this day, while I am also many other things, I am still a victim. 

It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred. 

This is the memoir of my body. My body was broken. I was broken. I did not know how to put myself back together. I was splintered. A part of me was dead. A part of me was mute and would stay that way for many years. 

I was hollowed out. I was determined to fill the void, and food was what I used to build a shield around what little was left of me. I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.

During my twenties, my personal life was an unending disaster. I did not meet many people who treated me with any kind of kindness or respect. I was a lightning rod for indifference, disdain, and outright aggression, and I tolerated all of this because I knew I didn’t deserve any better, not after how I had been ruined and not after how I continued to ruin my body. 

My friendships, and I use that term loosely, were fleeting and fragile and often painful, with people who generally wanted something from me and were gone as soon as they got that something. I was so lonely I was willing to tolerate these relationships. The faint resemblance of human connection was enough. It had to be enough even though it wasn’t. 

Food was the only place of solace. Alone, in my apartment, I could soothe myself with food. Food didn’t judge me or demand anything from me. When I ate, I did not have to be anything but myself. And so I gained a hundred pounds and then another hundred and then another hundred.

On a visit to Los Angeles, my best friend and I were drinking wine in a hotel room. During a pleasant lull in the conversation, she grabbed my hand to paint my thumbnail. She had been threatening to do this for hours and I was resisting for reasons I could not articulate. Finally, I surrendered and my hand was soft in hers as she carefully covered my nail in a lovely shade of pink. She blew on it, let it dry, added a second coat. The evening continued. I stared at my finger the next day as I sat on an airplane hurtling across the country. I could not remember the last time I had allowed myself the simple pleasure of a painted fingernail. I liked seeing my finger like that, particularly because my nail was long, nicely shaped, and I hadn’t gnawed at it as I am wont to do. Then I became self-conscious and tucked my thumb against the palm of my hand, as if I should hide my thumb, as if I had no right to feel pretty, to feel good about myself, to acknowledge myself as a woman when I am clearly not following the rules for being a woman—to be small, to take up less space. 

Before I got on the plane, my best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat, but I denied myself that. I told her, “People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,” and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said. Only the depth of our relationship allowed me to make this revelation and then I was ashamed for buying into these terrible narratives we fit ourselves into and I was ashamed at how I am so terrible about disciplining my body and I was ashamed by how I deny myself so much and it is still not enough.


Lazy Linking, 196th in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:

196.1 All the bldgs that were once "tallest in Philly" bit.ly/2ycYH76 @thephillyvoice

196.2 One man's bodily waste truly is another's treasure go.nature.com/2x2SEEk @nature

196.3 Incoming Uber CEO sure seems humbler than outgoing one on.inc.com/2vZ5uzT @inc

196.4 How young is too young to ride transit solo? Vancouver now says <10 bit.ly="" nextcityorg="" p="" wtceqp="">
196.5 Minority Report is here: retinal scans to replace security guards? bit.ly/2x8PcaH @xinhuanetnews


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XCIII

Here's two excerpts from a book I recently read, "Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are," by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:

During the general election, there were clues that the electorate might be a favorable one for Trump. Black Americans told polls they would turn out in large numbers to oppose Trump. But Google searches for information on voting in heavily black areas were way down. On election day, Clinton would be hurt by low black turnout. 

There were even signs that supposedly undecided voters were going Trump’s way. Gabriel and I found that there were more searches for “Trump Clinton” than “Clinton Trump” in key states in the Midwest that Clinton was expected to win. Indeed, Trump owed his election to the fact that he sharply outperformed his polls there. 

But the major clue, I would argue, that Trump might prove a successful candidate—in the primaries, to begin with—was all that secret racism that my Obama study had uncovered. The Google searches revealed a darkness and hatred among a meaningful number of Americans that pundits, for many years, missed. Search data revealed that we lived in a very different society from the one academics and journalists, relying on polls, thought that we lived in. It revealed a nasty, scary, and widespread rage that was waiting for a candidate to give voice to it. 

People frequently lie—to themselves and to others. In 2008, Americans told surveys that they no longer cared about race. Eight years later, they elected as president Donald J. Trump, a man who retweeted a false claim that black people are responsible for the majority of murders of white Americans, defended his supporters for roughing up a Black Lives Matters protester at one of his rallies, and hesitated in repudiating support from a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The same hidden racism that hurt Barack Obama helped Donald Trump. 

Early in the primaries, Nate Silver famously claimed that there was virtually no chance that Trump would win. As the primaries progressed and it became increasingly clear that Trump had widespread support, Silver decided to look at the data to see if he could understand what was going on. How could Trump possibly be doing so well? 

Silver noticed that the areas where Trump performed best made for an odd map. Trump performed well in parts of the Northeast and industrial Midwest, as well as the South. He performed notably worse out West. Silver looked for variables to try to explain this map. Was it unemployment? Was it religion? Was it gun ownership? Was it rates of immigration? Was it opposition to Obama? 

Silver found that the single factor that best correlated with Donald Trump’s support in the Republican primaries was that measure I had discovered four years earlier. Areas that supported Trump in the largest numbers were those that made the most Google searches for “ni**er.”

Why do some parts of the country appear to be so much better at churning out America’s movers and shakers? I closely examined the top counties. It turns out that nearly all of them fit into one of two categories. 
First, and this surprised me, many of these counties contained a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw the name of a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Michigan, I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor. The counties graced by Madison, Wisconsin; Athens, Georgia; Columbia, Missouri; Berkeley, California; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Gainesville, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; and Ithaca, New York, are all in the top 3 percent. 
Why is this? Some of it is may well be due to the gene pool: sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart (a trait that, in the game of big success, can be mighty useful). And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there. 
But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations, and even independent record stores. 
And this isn’t limited to the arts. College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople. Maybe early exposure to cutting-edge art and ideas helps them, too. 
The success of college towns does not just cross regions. It crosses race. African-Americans were noticeably underrepresented on Wikipedia in nonathletic fields, especially business and science. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with discrimination. But one small county, where the 1950 population was 84 percent black, produced notable baby boomers at a rate near those of the highest counties. Of fewer than 13,000 boomers born in Macon County, Alabama, fifteen made it to Wikipedia—or one in 852. Every single one of them is black. Fourteen of them were from the town of Tuskegee, home of Tuskegee University, a historically black college founded by Booker T. Washington. The list included judges, writers, and scientists. In fact, a black child born in Tuskegee had the same probability of becoming a notable in a field outside of sports as a white child born in some of the highest-scoring, majority-white college towns.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XCII

Here are four excerpts from a book I recently read, "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis--and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance," by Ben Sasse:

At one level, happiness is an equation that has “needs met” as the numerator and “presumed total needs” as the denominator. One way to achieve temporary happiness is to invest more energy seeking to fill up the numerator. But another way, a more stable way, is to reflectively guard against the growth of one’s denominator of needs, and to cultivate the habit of gratitude at the satisfaction of real and basic needs.

Thoughtful travel is an obligatory part of education because travel “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” It is somewhat like the exercise of assigning a student in a debate the task of arguing for the position that they reject. Articulating both sides of an issue doesn’t just broaden your mind—and strengthen your own argument, if it survives the scrutiny—it also treats your interlocutor with dignity. 

Shorter version: Walking a mile in another man’s shoes, in his country, produces understanding, empathy, and healthy doses of self-reflection, self-criticism, and gratitude.

Unsurprisingly, the first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. Until about the year 1000, the most literate men in Europe belonged to the clergy, which had a monopoly on this book. Almost everybody else learned through icons and images. Before Gutenberg, churches chained down their Bibles, in part because they were so expensive and difficult to produce, but also to limit their circulation and who was permitted to read them. The cheap and quick production afforded by Gutenberg’s press democratized and universalized reading, transforming hierarchies of knowledge and ultimately all of society. The shift from a manuscript culture to a print culture was radical. With manuscripts, the emphasis was on preservation. If you had the only existing copies of Cicero’s Letters or Euclid’s Geometry, you weren’t likely to share these rare, fragile artifacts. Instead, you kept them safe from vandalism and decay. The physical book was often more important to its owner than the ideas therein. You would want to ensure the survival of those manuscripts for subsequent generations of elite, full-time scholars. 

After Gutenberg, print culture made copying simple. If you were a printer, you had different incentives: to see your work spread far and wide. Preservation became less of a concern than propagation. Books were transformed from heirlooms to tools. And ideas were freed to become viruses, for good and for ill.Before Gutenberg, books were printed in Latin, the language of scholars, and thus accessible only to the elites. With the advent of the printing press, it became profitable to bring books to the masses in their own languages. Translating boomed. A new German translation of the Bible arrived in the late 1460s. Then an Italian one in 1471; then “Dutch in 1477, Spanish in 1478, Czech around the same time and Catalan in 1492”; then many French innovations with abridged Bibles; then dozens of competing German editions in the early 1500s. It is impossible to understand the Protestant Reformation of 1517 and beyond without seeing it against the backdrop of frenzied translation activity that created so many more conversations about this book. More translations inevitably meant more competing views, more debate.

A republic is the only form of government, the only social arrangement, that seeks to make individuals preeminent in their own self-control, their own self-possession. A republic is thus at once liberating and scary. For it both requires and assumes adults, not subjects. And this is a rare state of affairs in political history. 

Children do not govern themselves, of course. They don’t know how to. They have to be taught and they have to learn self-governance. In a healthy society, they migrate from a phase of parental control to partial self-control, and then to full independence. These developmental and transitional phases should be periods when they are thought of as “little citizens”—people on the way to becoming self-controlled. We don’t think this way today. 

Well-functioning citizens share a collective memory of how and why and toward what ends our polity came to be. Adult-citizenship presumes a substantial level of self-awareness and impulse control; it knows both rights and duties. Sadly, the United States today suffers from widespread collective amnesia. As a result, many Americans coming of age today don’t understand the country they’re inheriting. They’ve not heard our story. And thus many of them don’t even know what they don’t know.


Well With Your Soul in the Storm

Like so many others, I spent much of the weekend holding my breath about loved ones in Florida and following along as they made plans to shelter or to flee.  Putting myself in their shoes is not hard to imagine and not easy to fathom.  You think about all that matters in your life – your family and your home – and all you have to do to safeguard them.  And then to think that there is a good chance that no matter what you do, it may be of no help against a force as mighty as Irma.

Yesterday in church, as an act of intercession for and solidarity with those in Irma’s path, we sang the famous hymn, “It is Well With My 
Soul.”  It was a powerful moment of considering storms both physical and metaphorical, our own and those we love who are in harm’s way.  And it called to mind for me the context in which the hymn was first written, by Horatio Spafford in .  This is the first paragraph in the Wikipedia entry on the hymn:

This hymn was written after traumatic events in Spafford's life. The first was the death of his son at the age of 2 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago that was extensively damaged by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sea vessel, the Loch Earn, and all four of Spafford's daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, "Saved alone …". Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.

This is a far more bitter situation to contemplate.  Losing a son at 2 is tragic, although at the time it was not particularly unusual.  And financial ruin is devastating, too, of course.  But then to send ahead your wife and four daughters on a ship, and then to learn that a terribly shipwreck had left your wife the lone survivor…well I for one would be utterly stricken by grief and devoid of bearing.

For Spafford, it birthed in him these incredible words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
 My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

A very large number of people have been in the path of weather-related destruction in the past few weeks.  But there is a greater and wider storm that threatens mortal and moral destruction.  And, just like how the most fearsome thing about Irma (and Harvey and Katrina and Andrew) is that we are helpless against such physical might, sin (ours and humanity’s) has put us in a “helpless estate.”  That we are regarded by a mighty God, who has shed His own blood for our soul, is what allowed Horatio Spafford to be able to say, “it is well” in the midst of an unthinkably dark storm.  May we be able to say that too, no matter what storms we are facing.


Touchdown (for) Jesus

On this first Sunday of the 2017-2018 NFL season, I am struck by the flurry of recent articles about the open faith of some of the league's top young QBs.  Faith and football is of course a very common intersection, but it was still remarkable to me to read these three stories in quick succession this past week:

1. As a Raiders fan, I have delighted in Derek Carr's rapid ascendance in the league, and am even more happy to know that he is an "unashamed" Christian.

2. On the local front, the Daily News ran a cover story about Eagles' signal-caller Carson Wentz, who considers football nothing more than a platform to share the good news of Jesus.

3. Here's a nice feel-good story about how good of a person Marcus Mariota is and how much people adore him for it, although it was curious that his strong Christian faith wasn't mentioned at all.

This is just in the past week or so...I could also mention Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers, or any one of maybe 15-20 other starting QBs.  Nice that there are so many positive examples everywhere you tune in Sunday afternoon.