Archive for February, 2009

If you woke up tomorrow and found yourself living during 1929 1930 what would you do?

Unfortunately that question is not simply an academic exercise. Before last fall, I never really thought that I would live through a depression but here we are. One thing that has interested me as I observe what I take to be the still early days of another depression is how the effects are very similar to what I imagine to be the effects of a psychological depression. I sense in myself and others a lack of motivation, a general sense of darkness and helplessness leading to a stifling pessimism. I suppose this makes sense but I never thought to link the two types of depression. The suicides I sometimes associate with the market collapse of 1929 make more sense to me now.

But despite the general (and personal) gloom, I’m convinced that as Christians we are called to be people of hope and to bear witness to the good news of the gospel in all circumstances. So I want to return to the question of how to we prepare for a depression.

The scripture passage that keeps coming to mind is the account of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 41 and following. Here Joseph advises Pharaoh to stock up in good times for the hard times that follow. Due to this advice not only is Egypt saved but Joseph is reconciled to his family and the chosen people are preserved. It may seem late in the game to start preparing for difficult times but if so, I will suggest that it just means we (and by we I have in mind the Church, especially the local church) have little time to lose. I hope to lay out in this blog what The Joseph Project may look like in my local church but first I want to look at a couple of other passages.

In Luke 16:1-14 we have the (difficult) account of the shrewd manager who is about to lose his position but before he does he uses his power to benefit others so they’ll be kind to him when he is in need. I won’t pretend to adequately explain this passage. But what strikes me is the wisdom of using possessions and/or power to build connections with our neighbors. I think the temptation in difficult times is to pull back and try to do whatever we can to secure the position of our families, however the reality is that no one knows who will be the next one to face a crisis beyond their means. Rather than trying to build up an investment portfolio that might be gone in the morning shouldn’t we try to build up a network of people who we can fall back on if needed. This passage by the way includes the famous line that one can not have two masters and cannot serve both God and money. In times of want we may be even more tempted to serve money.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the sharing of possessions in the early chapters of Acts (Acts 4:32-36 for example). Reading these accounts I think many thrill at the possibility of such a community. There is something almost Eden like about the description and it is accompanied by the rapid spread of the gospel. But it becomes clear in Acts 5-6 that sharing possessions also brought some serious problems. The logistics involved are not trivial and eventually threatened the preaching of the gospel and required strong leaders like Stephen to administer. Thus I find both hope but also a word of caution in Acts about believers using their possessions to meet the needs of others in a formal and consistent fashion. We must guard against letting the amelioration of physical needs distract us from addressing the spiritual needs and we need to be prepared to make difficult, possibly unpopular decisions about how to distribute the resources at our disposal.

So if I can rephrase the opening question, how would a modern Joseph or Stephen respond to the economic challenges facing the world? By the grace of God, and trusting in the Spirit who is God, I think there is great opportunity for the church to act shrewdly, intentionally, and ultimately missionally. It is quite possible that along the way we’ll discover a deeper sense of fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ and find new opportunities to bear witness to the wisdom, love and salvation found in Christ. Or such is my prayer.

I welcome your thoughts and hope to sketch out soon some further ideas of how one could advance The Joseph Project.

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Thinking about research

Posted: February 17, 2009 in Culture
Tags: , ,

In a blog at work I’ve been exchanging posts with a colleague about the future of librarians. She asks if humans will even be necessary given advances in information technology. Can’t computers find, analyze, and present data more quickly and comprehensively then we can?

In my experience, typically when someone suggests that human can be replaced by machines it is not b/c the machines are so great but because their few of humanity is so small. If research, for example, was only finding and evaluating information and then summarizing and arranging the data it is possible that machines could do all of that. But I think that misses the point of research.

I believe that research, on the one hand, should be about asking questions, specifically the creative, philosophical questions that only a human can ask. Beginning with the research problem, or thesis, the question asking continues as data is found and explored from different angles. Angles that are often most fruitful when they connect with our own stories and experiences. Posing philosophical questions, like appreciating sunsets is something that I think is crucial to being human and not the type of things that microchips can do meaningfully.

On the other hand, I think that research is a practice which bestows great rewards to the practitioner. To take on a research project is to embark on a quest to discover what you don’t know. Along the way the researcher (hopefully) develops patience, diligence, and the ability to empathize with different points of view. It is likely that the development of these character traits is often more to be valued then the results of the research. Thus I think research can be understood as promoting virtue – helping us discover the good in a moral not mechanistic sense.

Unfortunately, I think the library profession does not do enough to highlight these aspects of research. It becomes easy for us to make finding more and better sources the focus of research often leaving the researcher so swamped with data that they have no time to ask meaningful questions and spend time simply pondering. Likewise, in our attempt to help make the process as efficient as possible we diminish the character building aspect of research. The final paper becomes more important than the practice. Research is just a hoop to jump through to get the degree and the more the process can be expedited the better. So much so that one wonders, can’t a machine just do this so we don’t have to be bothered.

There is a lot more that could be said on this topic. I know that if I were ever to assign a research project in the future, I would encourage students to spend more time with fewer texts hoping to encourage more thinking and less hunting for more and more data.

photo by Operators Are Standing By

photo by Operators Are Standing By

Ananias & Sapphira

Posted: February 10, 2009 in Bible
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I’m leading my church’s intro to the NT class this week and we are covering Acts chapters 5-9. Using all my clerical DNA, I’m organizing the material under the rubric Money (ch.5), Murder(ch.6-7), Magic(ch.8), and Metamorphosis (ch.9).

Some thoughts on this material…

Last week we talked about how everything was going so well for the nascent church in Acts 2-4 and how rare it is in the Bible for this to happen. This made me think how God’s creation of the church mirrors the creation of the world with a brief time in paradise followed by the fall. In Acts it is again a married couple (Ananias and Sapphira) whose disobedience and deceit precipitates the fall and we are again reminded that the wages of sin is death. From then on the church faces internal strife and persecution and you could draw a comparison to the curse of producing fruit only by the sweat of your brow and to pains in child birth.

I’ve haven’t read very widely on this so I don’t know if this is a fairly common reading or if there are good reasons not to read this story this way.

I did read that Stephen’s speech marks a turning point in Acts as He makes the case that the core of Judaism is not the Torah & temple but rather obedience to YWH that pre-dated the law (Abraham and Joseph) and the temple (tabernacle). Thus the most important thing from his perspective is to obey the Messiah, Jesus. It was said that this marks a clear theological distinction between 1 century Judaism and the Church that will ultimately lead to them being separate religions.

Finally, my New Bible Commentary argues that the Ethiopian Eunuch is the first gentile convert in the book of Acts. Apparently as a Eunuch he was not allowed to convert to Judaism. In our excitement over the first African-American President, just think what this first African Christian signified. He went from reading about the chosen people to being part of their inheritance and paved the way for all of us to share in that blessing.

Cranford

Posted: February 1, 2009 in Uncategorized

It is easy to complain about today’s movies and television programs and I am not immune from doing that. One of the better reasons for such criticism is that stories are so important for helping us understand and navigate the world. Good stories ought to inspire us to courage, virtue, and heroism. They ought to serve as the common foundation for community but when they debase all life by glorifying violence or encourage base indulgence we have a right to complain.

One important avenue of complaint is to look at the medium we use to communicate stories. I do not think that every medium is equally adept at contributing towards healthy community life. Limitations in the medium inevitably impact the story.

But I do not want to pursue that now. Instead I want to highlight movies and programs that I believe make helpful contributions toward understanding community life. Today’s example is the BBC mini-series Crawford Cranford.

This nineteenth century costume drama features what my wife tells me is an all star cast. It chronicles a year in the life of a small English town in five 1 hour episodes. The community in Cranford is really the focus as several different stories are tracked through the series. We see a community that can muster courage, and strength in the face of tragedy, a community of rituals and structure, a community that celebrates young love and mature wisdom. There is also the tensions of technological intrusion, poverty, and a paternalism that is at once caring and stifling. But in the end I found Cranford gracefully life affirming.

The task remains however, to translate the best of rural, Victorian community into the urban America of this millennium. To simply long for the “good old days” is to fail our peers and ourselves. While I continue to ponder that, I’ll offer sharing stories, like the story of Cranford as a good place to start. Not b/c it provides patterns we can copy but b/c it reminds us of the joy and courage that is found in the best communities in any age.