Archive for November, 2008

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Posted: November 27, 2008 in Culture
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It doesn’t seem right to have “Pilgrim” in the name of your blog and not acknowledge Thanksgiving. Lately I’ve been thinking about the name of this blog. There is some tension between Urban (a place) and Pilgrim (a traveler). This is the tension I hope to explore throughout this blog.

But today I am thinking of the importance of place and the necessity to be thankful for our place. By place I mean first, the physical space around us that we live in with its unique features and history. Second, I mean our cultural space – the people, stories, and institutions that shaped who each of us have become. Yesterday, I read about the English folk group Show of Hands and listened to their song Roots. This song is a poignant plea to remember our stories and our songs. They sing:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wales
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
There’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all

And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps

And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs

How will we know where we come from?

I hope you get a chance to share some of the stories and songs that mark your place this weekend and have an opportunity to give thanks to God for the place (however imperfect and fallen) that He has put you. Happy Thanksgiving!

h/t Rod Dreher


Reading Theology of the OT

Posted: November 23, 2008 in church, Uncategorized
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I am planning on teaching a course this spring at our church on the OT. To prepare for that class I’ve begun reading Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. The first two chapters are a very helpful summary of scholarship on this topic.

In chapter 3 Brueggemann begins by claiming that the OT is best understood as a body of testimony about the acts of the God of Israel. The most characteristic claim of this testimony is that God acts with transformative power on some object and in the process is bound to that object. Two things are said to follow from that claim. First, the God of Israel is incomparable to and greater than any rival. God’s actions set Him apart from all others. Second, is that God is linked to his people. Solidarity is the word Brueggemann uses for this point.

So on this Sunday let us reflect on a God revealed by His action to be uniquely and supremely powerful. Whose actions bear witness to a solidarity with His people (which in the OT can be either the covenant nation of Israel or more broadly the poor and oppressed generally). The affirmations provide welcome (and true) hope in troubled times. Let us rejoice in the actions of our God.

Bee Minus

Posted: November 21, 2008 in Current Events
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So what is more frightening then the economic news? Maybe reading that 30-50% of the bees in Europe are dying. Apparently that don’t completely understand why although they suspect a varroa mite is weakening the bees immune system. (I realize this isn’t exactly breaking news but the BBC just had a new story on it).

by duane.schoon

by duane.schoon

Reading the book, The Tree (discussed below – and it really is much more biology than politics), I was really struck by how interdependent the natural world is. Tudge argues that cooperation is at least as much in evidence as competition. And of course bees are a key player for many plants. Another point the book makes is that there is still a lot we don’t know about how our world works. God works in complex and beautiful ways.

It is quite possible that there is not connection between the financial and crisis and the dying bees. But one wonders which is more serious? It also seems evident that our economic structure puts a lot of stress on our environment.

Reading the Tree

Posted: November 19, 2008 in Uncategorized

I’ve been reading The Tree by Colin Tudge. The book is mostly a narrative encyclopedia of all the wonders found amongst the trees around the world. It is quite amazing the diversity of life we have around us which is but a drop in the bucket compared to the diversity of life in the tropical forests. The following quote, while not typical for the book, grabbed me last night:

“Progress” is the buzzword. If this meant improvement of human well-being and security, it would [be] a fine concept, but in practice it does not. It has come to mean “Westernization” – that all the world should be more like us: more industrialized, which means more global warming, and more urbanized, which means less care for the countryside and even bigger slums. . . . At the same time, the world’s politics have become more abstract – geared not to physical realities but to the abstraction of money. Governments measure their success in GDP: total wealth created. Good endeavors can create wealth, of course like building schools and planting forests. But bad things create wealth at least as easily – like felling forests and selling them off, or simply making war. . . . Agrarian economies that have ticked along for thousands of years in perfect harmony with their surroundings are said to be “stagnant” and “ripe for development.” “Development,” in turn, is equated with increase in cash. The fight against hunger, disease, oppression, and injustice has been reduced (dumbed down, one might say) to the “war on poverty.” p. 366.

by Adnan Yahya

by Adnan Yahya

Showing Respect

Posted: November 18, 2008 in Culture
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photo by Jan Wittkopp

photo by Jan Wittkopp

I am attempting to define respect as my contribution to the Respect Our President facebook group (over 4,000 members) and website.

In the first half of this essay I argue that respect, unlike admiration or trust is an appropriate response to power inequalities. At its most basic level respect means not slandering, or cursing those in power. It also means that we don’t flippantly disregard decorum and laws so as to provoke violent confrontations. All of this is summed up by the title of that post: Don’t Taunt the Tiger.

However as Americans I think we aspire to give and receive a respect that goes beyond the above prohibitions. Here I will offer some further thoughts on what it means to show respect, especially to political leaders such as the President of the United States.

Be Honest
Respect requires us to be honest. If you discover that someone was dealing with you dishonestly you are not likely to feel respected. Honesty is a virtue that has many applications but let me suggest one that I think is especially relevant. We need to be honest about our agreements and disagreements with those in power. We live in a world that loves to portray people as either all good or all bad, however the truth is that rarely will we completely agree or completely disagree with an administration. If we are to respect the President let us have the honesty to admit when we think he is correct as well as when we disagree. Be wary of the person who can offer no criticism or compliment to the President, such a person is likely to see the President only as a partisan or patriotic symbol and not properly respect them as an important participant in our national conversation.

Get Involved
Have you ever worked really hard on a project only to another person respond with a weary, “whatever” when you finally present it? I bet you didn’t feel that your work was respected. Apathy is a form of disrespect. If we are to respect our President as a serious and important leader than we will need to be involved. Minimally we’ll need to participate intelligently in our qaudrennial elections but I think that respect should motivate us to go beyond that. Respect ought to motivate us to listen to what our leaders have to say, it is especially important that we listen and interact with their actual words rather than the spin of our favorite news outlet or comedy show.

While it important that we engage in the political dialogue on the big issues of state (war, constitutional rights, macro-economics etc.), I also think that respect for the President entails involvement in local politics. Few people are more irritating than those that complain of others while neglecting their own responsibilities. Our country will never prosper simply because of the wise decisions of our President. By getting involved in our local communities we demonstrate that the political process is important and that we are willing to do our part. I believe that such engagement also demonstrates our respect.

Play fair
We show respect when we are honest, when we get involved, and when we play by the rules. Or conversely, dishonesty, apathy, and cheating are all forms of disrespect. What constitutes fair play? At one level it means understanding and working within the political framework established by our constitution. We are blessed to live under a constitution that has many checks and balances on the various branches of government and when we respect that system we both respect those it gives power too and preserve the established limits to that power. But I think the need for fair play goes beyond following legal precedent.

Democratic politics at their best are a contest of ideas. Like other contests, there are rules for engaging in a debate over competing ideas. Rules that are taught under the title of logic. Unfortunately both the study and practice of sound logical argumentation has been neglected in our country. Here are a couple of points to be mindful of. First, don’t exaggerate the effects of a political program either by committing the fallacy of a hasty generalization (A is bad for this person so it must be bad for every person) or by appealing to the conveniently slippery slope (if A then maybe B which might mean C and that could bring about D so if A then definitely D). This type of argument provides fodder for partisan talk radio programs while it fails to respect earnest efforts to engage in a dialogue about our political future.

A final fallacy that I will mention here is countering an idea or policy by attacking someone’s character (the ad hominem fallacy). I think the character of our leaders is important and should be open for discussion but unfortunately discussions of character are often used as a substitute for engaging with ideas and specific policies. This is wrong. If you disagree with a proposal of the administration, you should be able to make your case without disparaging the character of your opponent. This is one of the basic rules of intellectual fair play and respect demands we abide by these rules.

Do your best
Have you ever played a game with someone who let you win? I doubt it was very fun. It also wasn’t respectful. The way you show respect to an opponent is not by giving up, but by diligent preparation and maximum effort, because you know that you are facing a worthy foe. I believe this principal is also true in the political arena. We show respect to our opponents by presenting our case as clearly and compellingly as possible. Strong argument (granted that it is honest and fair) raises the level of dialogue and makes everybody think more carefully. I believe that it will ultimately improve the proposals that get enacted from what they would have been without it.

Thus I would urge all my fellow citizens to bring their “A games” to our national discussion. If you honestly think that a President’s policies are not in the best interest of our country, then I think your respect for both country and President ought to compel you to state your objection as well as you are able. But I would ask that you pay attention to the rules of debate and refrain from unsupported character attacks or hype. I would also ask that you demonstrate your respect by not just talking but also by getting involved in improving your community. Finally, I think respect requires that we neither demonize nor flatter our leaders but are honest about the complexity of our world and their task.

Matt Whitman asked me to write an essay defining respect for This is a draft of part 1 of that essay.

Looking up respect in dictionaries you find words like deference which makes me think of nobles in powdered wigs and tights. In the internet age is respect an anachronism best left in Motown songs? If not what does respect mean and why should we treat another person with deference?

photo by Matt Knoth (this is the tiger in the story)

photo by Matt Knoth (this is the tiger in the story)

Consider the tiger. Now if you encountered a tiger in wilds of India I suspect that you would treat the cat with instant respect. Why? Power. Tigers are fast, strong, and can do a person great harm. Fortunately there are no wild tigers in America. Our tigers are in the zoo where they pace in front of us enclosed by glass and metal. Caged cats merit little respect or at least that was the theory of some zoo patrons last winter in San Francisco. They enjoyed teasing and taunting the tiger who they assumed was helplessly trapped in the exhibit. Unfortunately they were wrong, the tiger wasn’t trapped. The cat escaped and earned the respect she was denied by killing one patron and injuring two others.

What lesson do we learn from this cautionary tale? Don’t taunt the tiger! Respect is ultimately grounded in power. Although we’ve lost the fancy titles of Lord and Lady our country is still one where power is concentrated in the hands of the few. We’ve adapted to this reality by establishing institutions and traditions that act like the cages in a zoo to shelter bystanders from the raw force of that power. We are incredibly blessed to live in a society where one administration leaves and another assumes power without bloodshed. We should not take this for granted. The checks that restrain the powerful are not invincible. Respect is important because it nurtures the structures that prevent differences from being solved by brute force. Force that is likely to lead to mutual destruction. Like it did for the tiger.

Here I think it is important to differentiate between respect and admiration. The bank teller is likely to respect the armed thief demanding cash but not admire him. This respect will manifest itself by the teller handing over the money and not vocalizing all the foul epithets on the tip of the tellers tongue. The wise teller knows not to escalate the situation with needless taunts though he may hand over marked bills or press a silent alarm. I’m not sure this is the best example, but the points I would like to draw are these. Respect does not mean you support or admire the object of your respect. Respect does not mean that you offer no opposition to for example, the President. Instead minimal respect means acknowledging the realities of power and not escalating the situation, putting yourself and others at risk, by spreading slander, cursing, or thoughtlessly disregarding decorum and the law.

So far I’ve attempted to sketch a minimal level or respect grounded in the universal reality of power. Respect as I’ve described it above is largely refraining from certain activities summed up as not taunting the tiger. However, I think in America we aspire to be a society that demonstrates a much more robust version of respect. A respect that calls for us to take action. In a subsequent post I hope to describe a vision of respect that among other things calls us to get involved and when we disagree with our elected leaders to vigorously oppose them.

Update: I forgot to mention this article was helpful to me in formulating this essay: Peters, T. (2006, Sum). Respecting Muslims. Dialog, 45(2), 115-116. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.

Sex & Consequences

Posted: November 10, 2008 in Culture
Tags: , ,

Several years ago I was listening to a man make a case for the pro-choice (ie pro-abortion) cause on the radio. Listening to him, I was trying to understand why he was so passionate about this and then I realized that what he was really talking about was not abortion but sex. I understood his point to be that we should be able to sleep with whoever we want to without any persisting consequences such as children. He was especially upset that the pregnancy that may result from casual sex unfairly burdens women, who in his opinion should be given the option to choose to abort.

This was quite an epiphany for me. It helped me better understand why abortion has become such a central issue in the so called culture wars. The advocates of the sexual revolution need abortion to ensure that sex remains an activity that can be engaged in purely for momentary pleasure without messy, lasting complications. And once you are talking about sex, I think you quickly get to pretty core issues of what it means to be human, what it means to be a man or women. This is indeed an important discussion that effects how we organize our society, how we treat other people, and how we understand our own identity.

Thus it now seems to me that being for or against abortion (either individually or as a society) makes a profound statement about how we understand ourselves and others (or such are the implications of that stance even when only vaguely comprehended). This is why I think it usually makes sense to decide how to vote solely on this issue.*

At the crux of the divergent views of humanity is our relationship to the consequences of our actions. Do we take as a starting place our desire for pleasure and work to eliminate the obstacles and mitigate the “negative” consequences that get in the way of experiencing and enjoying pleasure? If so, then we must work hard to overcome all sorts of things including illness, physical limitations, monotony, work, and potentially unborn children. This is the “progressive” philosophy that lies behind much of our technology. Technology that promises us the ability to enjoy a maximum amount of pleasure with minimal effort. This type of thinking also inspires us to seek quick fortunes through abstract financial instruments resulting in wealth that is not earned the “old fashioned way” – through work that creates value for society.

photo by Kxlly

photo by Kxlly

Opposing this so-called progressive view is the idea that fundamentally life is about accepting responsibility for our actions and doing our duty as best we can. From this perspective our desire for pleasure in not central and is often viewed with suspicion. Suspicion both because it often lures us away from doing our duty, but also because it is seen as a false pleasure. An unsatisfactory substitute for the pleasure that comes from accepting our limits, our responsibility, and performing the tasks given to us. Under this view sex is best understood in terms of our responsibility/duty to our partner, our society, and offspring. To deny or eliminate the consequences of our action ultimately remove the importance, the nobility, from both the act and the actor. At it’s best I believe this is the wisdom “Conservatives” try to conserve.

To my disappointment much of what is now called conservatism seems to have little to do with responsibility and duty. Oddly it is in the environmental movement that one now finds some of this discussion (which is probably only odd if you accept the MSM’s** definition of environmentalism and conservatism) and thankfully talk of responsibility and duty have never completely left the Church where it is most prominent when the Judgment is also in view. I hope (no promises though) that this blog contributes helpful thoughts on how you and I can live responsibly in our neighborhoods and leaves behind for now partisan politics.

*In providing this analysis I don’t mean to minimize the moral horror of abortion which consciously motivates many to vote against it. It is horrible. But I think the passion on both sides speaks to the larger struggle I’ve tried to articulate here. If you’ve read this far I encourage you to click here for a compelling statement on the horrors of abortion.

**MSM is blog acronym for Main Stream Media. Now you know.