Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tammeus Column and an Ironic Observation

Bill Tammeus is a great writer and a wonderful person and Kansas City is lucky to have him. I have huge respect for him, and eagerly look forward to his weekly column, and read his blog regularly. Last Saturday's KC Star column on our cultural values was one of the best of his I have read, and I hope you'll click here to read it all for yourself, or dig it out of your recycling pile and give a perusal.

Here are some snippets:

"...they say we are focused on trivia, on mindless entertainment, on nothing of eternal value, that we’ve lost our way. We demand bread and circuses but are willing to forgo the bread in favor of the circuses."

"We save our angriest responses for those times when we can’t get Hannah Montana tickets, when some TV network cuts into our soap operas for a news bulletin, when newspapers cancel our favorite comic strip, when our local pro football team fails to pummel an opponent."

"...although we need the arts as a way to help us understand the world and imagine a better one, there’s a difference between the arts and much of what our pop culture offers to distract us from lives of quiet desperation and to numb our hearts."

Regarding the Hannah Montana concert:
"When we put huge amounts of energy into getting tickets to hear a 14-year-old singing about her limo, something clearly has gone amiss. And religious leaders who aren’t pointing out that sad conclusion aren’t doing their job."

But guess what the Kansas City dot com web page from which I am reading is showing in the upper right corner of Bill's column? It is an advertisement for ... ready? ... LASER HAIR REMOVAL and it features a close up picture of the body (only body, no face) of a bikini-clad woman. Unbelievable. A column slamming the shallow, "vacuous" culture in which we live, and it's publication is funded by a hair removal ad that shows a close up of a woman's nearly naked body.

I'm pretty sure Bill has nothing to do with the choice of ads placed on the web pages! But rather than anyone thinking I am not doing my job by failing to point out that little irony, I'm going to just go ahead and point it out, ok?

Let me paraphrase: When we put huge amounts of money into placing an ad that clearly objectifies women and exploits human sexuality for the purpose of selling a product that does something as vain, shallow, and selfish as removing hair from one's body, something clearly has gone amiss.

(How was that, Bill?)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Scientific Proof That the Conversation Matters

Maybe people are (at least partly) biologically predisposed to think the way we do along the conservative <-> liberal spectrum.

I read this column yesterday by one of my favorites, Mary Sanchez, that posed the question. And here's a column on by William Saletan that makes a very different case. Both focus on a recent study by Nature Neuroscience.

Back to the whole nature/nurture discussion, huh?

Basically, this experiment asked people to self-identify their political leanings, then flashed a series of "M"s and "W"s on a screen at them. They were supposed to click the "M"s and not click the "W"s. It seems that the "liberals" were better at this little game than the "conservatives" were, with more "conservatives" errantly clicking the "W"s than "liberals." And so what does that prove?


Conservatives, the study observed, tend to be “more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision-making,” and liberals tend to show a “higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity, and greater openness to new experiences.”

Saletan has a different take. Whereas Sanchez wonders about difference without making a value judgement, Saletan thinks the study unfairly paints conservatives as dumber than liberals.
Habitual way of thinking. Informational complexity. Need to change. Those are sweeping terms. They imply that conservatives, on average, are adaptively weaker at thinking, not just button-pushing.

It has been said, "If you throw a brick in a room full of dogs, the one who yelps is the one who got hit." Tee hee. Methinks the columnist doth protest too much.

Whatever, I don't think this study actually slams conservatives, but I don't understand how this experiment led the scientists to these conclusions, myself. It seems a bit much to reach such broad results from a few minutes at a couple of computer terminals looking at a couple of letters flash across the screen. Nonetheless it is fun to think about the why and how of what we think and believe. Is it nature, a biological predisposition? Or is it nurture, learned through teaching and example? A bit of both?

It is so tricky to have an honest, respectful dialogue on the theological, social, and political "hot button" issues. Sometimes we say that we are metaphorically "speaking different languages" - but maybe we are literally using terms and phrases that cannot be understood? I don't mean the words themselves, but maybe the concepts and ideas behind them?

Sanchez asks the question this way:
It could be that no one is listening to viewpoints other than those they already agree with wholeheartedly, not because they are obstinate or simply dumb, but because they are leaning too heavily on their innate brain circuitry.

And far from indicating a hopeless situation in which we all just continue to talk past each other with the same relentless, stale rhetoric, thinking along these lines means that, in order to more effectively communicate, we don't necessarily need to change what we say, but rather how we say it. In short, the conversation matters. The way we talk to each other matters, especially in the church.

I've always said (and it is in the header above) that if in the attempt to realize the reign of God on earth, we cannot engage one another in respectful and grace-filled dialogue, we might as well not even try, and now there's scientific proof to back me up!

Cross posted here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Blog Lesson & the Salvation/Discipleship Distinction

First, a lesson I learned from my last post. I wrote a line (this line: "...salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually") by which I was attempting to make a distinction between salvation and discipleship. This line was not my focus, not the main point of the post, and I did not give it much of a thought.

Here's the lesson: There is no such thing as a "throw-away line" when it is posted on the internet! The two comments and a few personal conversations I've had about the post have zeroed in on that line and challenged me to clarify the relationship between salvation and discipleship as I see it. And so a line that I saw as no more than a transition into what I really wanted to write about discipleship became the place that generated the most dialogue, and no one mentioned anything about what I saw as the main point, that discipleship is hard work.

Secondly, to clarify my own theology, I do not separate discipleship and salvation at all. The two are complexly interwoven, to be sure. I use the word "precede" to describe salvation's relationship to discipleship in order to affirm God as the initiator of the process. I believe that discipleship is a human response to God's initiation, at every point. Prior to conversion, God is at work before we are aware. Prior to justification, God makes the invitation. Prior to the journey of sanctification, God's grace is luring, inviting, calling, pulling, urging us onward. All that we do as disciples is in response to what God does to save us.

And that's what I mean by "...salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually." I hope that makes sense, and I thank those of you who commented online and in person for the reminder that every word counts!

Update: Also posted here.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Sometimes it's just not easy.

Take Luke 14:25-33, for instance. How many of us have spent hours wrestling with Jesus words, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple"? I sure have. Surely Jesus didn't really mean that, did he? What's this we read about having to "carry the cross," now? And surely there must be some metaphorical nuance to his admonition, "...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

I mean, he's not serious, is he?

As my Bible study class wrestled with this one last Wednesday evening, one thing we all realized was how important it is to make a distinction between discipleship and salvation. The passage from Luke and other similar passages in the Gospels (for example Matthew 10:37-39, Mark 8:34-35) are about the decision to become a disiple of Jesus, a follower of the way. They are not so much about salvation, which precedes discipleship both temporally and spiritually.

It is helpful for me to think of it this way - there's nothing wrong with being in the crowd, but we need to know that there is a-whole-nother level of faith. That next level involves deciding to step out of the crowd and live a completely different life patterned after the example and teachings of Jesus. The first sentence of the lesson reads, "Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them..." Jesus doesn't condemn the crowd, but he wants them to know that there's more, he actively invites them to choose that path, and then instructs his disciples to continue extending that invitation on his behalf, even today.

And that whole-nother level of faith that we call discipleship is going to require some pretty radical stuff. It will require that our love increase so much that even the feelings we have now toward our family will seem like hate in comparison. It will require that the life we lead be so abundant, so spirit-filled, so good that the only way to put it into words is to talk about dying to our old life. And it will mean that the only power we will rely upon will be the power of God, breaking the power over us that our possessions hold. (Possessions are more than just "stuff," I think - here we might talk also about our pride, our prejudices, our pretensions, things of this world. That may be a-whole-nother sermon, though.)

The good news is that the entire kit and kaboodle is bathed in grace. At those times when I just want to hang out in the crowd, God's grace is there. At those times when I am most spiritually alive and feel like God is all over the place, grace is there. And at those times when I'm ready to chuck it all, when it feels like God is so far away that I even have trouble believing God's there at all, ... somehow grace is there, too.

It comes down to this. Every one of us is just trying to live the best life we can. Some days we do better at this than others, to be sure. And yes, sometimes its just not easy. The passage from Luke 14 is really an expression of God's fervent desire that all of us would strive to live good lives. God wants us to live lives that are shaped by/grounded in/patterned after the life of Christ Jesus, the one we call Teacher, the one who longs for us to be disciples.

Monday, September 03, 2007

My Own Personal Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon

ANDY BRYAN > Jenna Fischer - "The Magic Flute" at Northeast Missouri State University. She worked in the costume shop; I played the part of Papageno.

Jenna Fischer > Will Ferrell - "Blades of Glory"

Will Ferrell > John C. Riley - "Talladega Nights"

John C. Riley > Renee Zellweger - "Chicago"

Renee Zellweger > Tom Cruise - "Jerry McGuire"

Tom Cruise > KEVIN BACON - "A Few Good Men"

This is how my brother Brad and I worked it out after dinner tonight.

Of course, I promptly visited the Oracle of Bacon and found a shorter path.

ANDY BRYAN > Jenna Fischer - "The Magic Flute"

Jenna Fischer > Matt Dillon - "Employee of the Month"

Matt Dillon > KEVIN BACON - "Loverboy"

And so, according to the Oracle of Bacon, I would have a Bacon number of 3. Sweet.

So that's pretty much how I spent my evening. Pretty impressive, huh?

Immigration - Hot Button Enough?

Thank you to everyone who responded last time, both at Enter the Rainbow and 7 Villages. Great stuff! Respectful disagreements and thoughtful responses were the rule, and there were many, many helpful insights.

I want to comment on one specific thread of conversation that came up over on 7 Villages. My friend Rob wrote, "Immigration and immigrants are not "hot buttons" with anyone I know, but "illegal" immigration would come much closer to a hot button." Another commenter had made a similar remark earlier in the thread, also.

I do not have vast experience with the immigration system in the United States, but of the five families I know through the church who have immigrated to this country, four have had setbacks with the system. In all four cases, the people had followed all of the rules according to the advice they had been given, done everything they were supposed to do, and still had troubles. It is an expensive, time-consuming, unimaginably stressful process to immigrate legally.

The immigration issue, as I have experienced it, is not just a legal issue, it is not only a racial or ethnic issue, it is not so much a patriotic issue. Immigration is a class issue. If you can afford the thousands of dollars it takes to immigrate legally, you're fine. If you have the luxury to expend the hours and hours, months, and even years it takes to immigrate legally, no problem. But if you are poor, and every bit of money you earn has to go toward things like food, clothing, and shelter, and the prospect of taking time off of work in order to maneuver through the bureaucy of the immigration system would mean you lose your job, then yes, immigration reform is a "hot button" issue.

People who immigrate to the United States are routinely exploited by employers who consider them nothing more than a cheap, expendable resource. Further, unethical agents gouge immigrants for exorbitant fees with the false promise of good advice and a helping hand. The list goes on: families are separated from one another, illness and injury often go untreated out of fear - immigration can be a frightening, daunting, dehumanizing experience.

And so I want to move the church's conversation about immigration away from the abstract and toward the personal. Instead of policies, systems, and border fences, I think the church ought to be talking about relationships, people, and shared experiences. Christ asks his disciples to notice especially the condition of the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. As followers of Christ, we need to affirm and embody the truth that every person is worth something in God's eyes, every person is in fact a beloved child of God. Yes, I believe the system is unwieldy and in need of reform, but as we work to make the system more just, we must not neglect the call to be in loving relationship with each of God's children.

After all, upon which is the church called to focus - one's relationship with the United States government, or one's relationship with God through Christ Jesus?