Another post on technology

Posted: September 29, 2009 in Uncategorized

This is a post I’m putting up on our work blog, thinc, tomorrow.

Reflections on Technology – pt.2

Former TEDS professor Kevin Vanhoozer urged us to interpret the “cultural texts” that surround us because “[S]piritual formation is happening to us and to our children all the time. Culture trains us in what the philosophers call the transcendental, honing our sense of what is true, good, and beautiful.” (Everyday Theology, p. 31).   I believe that all the technology that surrounds us is one of most pressing cultural texts for Christians to reckon with.

What does technology instruct us to affirm as the true, good, and beautiful?  Commonly the answer is personal ease and comfort.  Much of our technology has been engineered to make difficult things easy.  Technology assists with both the primal tasks of finding food and shelter as well as trivial tasks such as changing the channel on my television but always with the aim to make me as comfortable as possible. 

Another common use of technology is to provide us with choices so that we can cater to our unique combination of desires.  There are over 60 different kinds of toothpastes at my neighborhood Target.  The clear message in this is that my preferences and my comfort are important.

This emphasis on comfort, convenience, and choice makes it seem natural to choose ease rather than strength.  We become accustom to avoiding difficulty rather than developing the strength and discipline necessary to conquer it.  Transferred to our spiritual life this leads to promblems.  Many find the discipline of waiting upon the Lord increasingly difficult when we aren’t accustomed to waiting for other types of information.  Likewise Paul’s teaching in Romans 5 that we rejoice in suffering because it leads to perseverance, character, and hope is easily lost on us.  We simply rejoice in avoiding suffering.

In church, we may explicitly teach that we must deny ourselves to follow Christ but it can be easy for our use of the many technologies designed for personal comfort to send the exact opposite message.  That catering to self is a prime concern. Like the Babel builders we can easily, unwittingly, use technology to make a name for ourselves rather than bring glory to our savior.

So how do we avoid these errors while harnessing the power afforded us by technology to further God’s redemptive work?  Let me offer the following suggestions.

First we need to take to heart Vanhoozer’s insight that we are being formed spiritually all the time.  We need to consciously seek to align our use of technology with the teachings of our faith. The Amish famously evaluate technology in light of its impact upon community life.  We need to learn to evaluate it terms of its impact upon our calling to be disciples.  Among other things, I think this means we need to talk with other Christians about technology and its impact on us individually and communally.

Second, I believe we need to affirm the value of discipline and work as a good part of the life we were created to live.  We may find and use tools that help us become more disciplined and better workers but we should resist the looking to machines to deliver us from labor. 

Third, I think we need to strive for simplicity.  Simplicity here doesn’t mean “dumbed-down” but rather direct and unfiltered.  Praying without pretence is simple. Silence is simple.  Spending time with people, especially the weak and needy is simple.  Making meals from scratch is simple.  Technology if used uncritically often creates distraction and clutter in our lives that may be pleasing but inhibits our growth in Christian character.

There is a lot more to say and I encourage you to share your experiences and reflection in the comment boxes below.  In my next post I will look at the relationship between technology and knowledge.


Charles the Sunday School teacher

Posted: September 22, 2009 in Uncategorized

I was talking with my brother this week and the conversation turned to Sunday School. Growing up often Sunday School in our church consisted of my brother and I. We once even sang a duet as part of a multi-church Sunday School celebration. God in his wisdom had us do that before Youtube existed. Thanks be!

However, what I mostly remember about Sunday School is that much of the time Charles was our teachers. Charles was a Korean War vet who ran an appliance store in town. We considered him a surrogate Grandfather but I think it would be unlikely that many would peg him for a Sunday School teacher. He was a big man who worked with his hands but he showed up every week and taught the two of us in the church kitchen.

Charles was one of many volunteer teachers and youth leaders I had growing up. I remember a few of the memory verses and lessons but mostly I learned that there were adults who cared and who were willing to share with us what they had learned despite having a full plate of job and family concerns.

What brought on this nostalgic trip down memory lane was a discussion about the trade off in churches as they hire more staff and almost inevitably move from volunteer to professionally run programs. Something my brother who spent years as a full time youth pastor knows all about. I think we agree that there is a real danger here. A danger in communicating that you have to have years of training and specific spiritual gifts in order to minister effectively. It is an ecclesiastical division of labor that can easily lead to children only encountering a narrow range of Christian adults.

Another downside to the idea that ministry is best left to professionals is that churches end up doing less ministry. It is hard to replace a strong volunteer base with paid professionals. Thus you hear of churches that add staff and eliminate programs at the same time.

I realize there are some (many?) valid reasons that churches hire full time staff. But I think we have to be careful less we let our culture’s belief that if something is worth doing it is worth leaving to the experts prevent us from experiencing ministry beyond our comfort zone and prevent children from getting to know the love and wisdom that the many Charles’s of the world have to offer.

My wife and I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Ridge also known as West Rogers’ Park. We prefer West Ridge as Rogers’ Park is typically viewed as one of Chicago’s most problematic neighborhoods on the North Side.

Mark asked in a comment about the neighborhood so I thought I would introduce it. I found online this report on housing in West Ridge by Brian White of the Lakeside Community Development Corporation and I will include some of his statistics.

map_westridgeHere is a map of the neigborhood. I marked our home with the red dot in the lower right hand corner. There are two main north/south streets: Western and California (which I marked in orange since it wasn’t distinguished by Google). The three main east/west streets are Peterson, Devon (pronounced: Dee-von), and Touhy.

Regionally, West Ridge is most known for Devon street which is the center of south Asian culture in Chicago. The street is full of Indian and Pakistani restaurants and stores. Unfortunately, I don’t eat south Asian cuisine so I don’t spend much time on this street though it is very close to home. Western West Ridge also features a large Jewish population. Wikipedia calls this area of nice single family homes and bungalows the Golden Ghetto. It is interesting that you have Indians, Muslim Pakistanis, and Jews all living right next to each other without any obvious racial tension.

According to Brian White’s slides, WR is currently about 40% white (down from almost 90% in 1980), 25% Asian and 20% Hispanic. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing segment of the population and will soon be the largest minority group.

Median income in the community has been falling since 1970. Though it is still significantly ahead of Rogers’ Park. In 2000 the median income was around $47,000. In contrast to WR and RP, the Lincoln Square neighborhood to our south saw median income rise during the 1990s. This is where one sees more obvious gentrification.

In addition to the ethnic markets on Devon, WR was also home to a number of auto dealerships on Western. Some having been there over 70 years. Unfortunately these have almost all went out of business this year. Leaving an ugly swath of empty concrete lots and abandoned showrooms. It will be interesting to see the impact of this on the neighborhood.

In 2008 47.5% of WR residents own their home and 52.5% rent. The renters are mostly centered around Warren Park and between California and Western south of Devon. It is interesting the the area around our neighborhoods biggest park is also where the highest number of renters live and is generally thought of as the least safe parts of WR. Although the park itself is very nice and home to all sorts of activities from ice skating to golf. It even boasts a small, earnest drum and bugle corp who belt out their version of music at passing cars on Western.

West of Western there are a number of single family homes mixed in with some two flats. These include a number of Chicago bungalows and a portion of the neighborhood was recently added to the national register of historic places because of the number of outstanding and historic bungalows it includes. There is also a street with several ranch houses that always look out of place to me in the city.

The median price for a single family house in WR in 2007 was $635K, for condos it was $213K. A 2 bedroom apartment rented for around $1,100/month.

Hope this gives a little context to the community I write about here. Last month marked my second year as a WR resident and I feel that I still have a lot to learn about this place. Recently I joined the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce and I look forward to connecting with more of my neighbors through that organization. My wife and I also hope to eat more regularly in WR establishments though we may stick with the non-Indian ones. Hopefully this will be another way to meet our neighbors. Finally, I’ve begun collecting local Internet feeds on this site and you are welcome to check them out.

Reading David Wells

Posted: August 25, 2009 in church, Culture
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I’m currently reading The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David F. Wells. This is a thought provoking analysis of our culture and the Church’s response to that culture.

Dr. Wells discusses at length the rise of the “autonomous self” as a key to understanding contemporary America. He traces that rise through the four changes in the following quote:

First the change from virtues to values; second the change from character to personality; third the change from nature to self; finally the change from guilt to shame. p. 143

I can’t really do justice to the analysis of these changes in our society in a blog post. While each change may seem subtle, I think Wells rightly views them as significant. I can’t do real justice to these changes in a blog post but here is a nutshell summary:

1. Change from virtue as an external moral excellence to values which are individually selected. Wells writes that the word “values” was not in the 1882 OED and the concept of pronouncing certain things as important to us (either corporately or individually) is also novel.

2. Second Wells contrasts words of character (duty, morals, honor, citizenship, reputation, etc) with the labels of personality (fascinating, attractive, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, etc). He suggest that these later traits are now what is desired.

3. The third change is from the idea of a shared human nature that emphasizes are solidarity with each other and the created world to an emphasis on the unique self. This is very significant for theological conceptions of sin and redemption but also has ramification for our communities. A sense of entitlement to our rights replaces civic responsibility as people seek to have their uniqueness validated and affirmed.

4. Finally there is a change from guilt to shame. Wells unpacks this carefully but as I understand it guilt results from violating some standard (a court pronounces people guilty) where shame results from others discovering what we want to keep hidden. Wells see this change playing out in our fascination with recovery movements and personal health and fitness as we seek self help.

I’m still reading but this articulation of our society has stayed with me. I’ve been particularly thinking about character and how little we esteem it. We do seem to be very pragmatic in our estimation of others – do they get the job done or are they nice. And truth be told often this is what I aim for in my life. Rather than striving to be a man of character.

Finally, I also think Wells is right to say that most of this change a) has happened with little resistance from the church (actually Evangelicalism has often welcomed it) and b) that this is very problematic for traditional Christian theology. All of this goes along way toward answering the title of my favorite David Wells book – No Place for Truth: Whatever Happend to Evangelical Theology?

“While gentrification is a sensitive issue (and needs to be watched for its most insidious effects), when we consider the alternatives, it really seems to be the best option for our cities”

Eric Jacobsen wrote that on page 150 of his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom. Despite his much more nuanced and trepid discussion of this topic in his conclusion (only a few pages later) the damage was done. At least for my book discussion group. Personally, I don’t have the same strong reaction to the “g” word perhaps due to my lack of urban roots.

I see gentrification as part of the following urban history narrative. Following WWII the automobile made suburbia the place to be for all who could afford it. The central cities became commuting destinations for all the new suburbanites. The move to the suburbs and the white flight into segregated neighborhoods decimated cities. Large federal attempts to deal with urban poverty only concentrated the problems of the urban poor in inner city housing projects and ghettos. The future of cities looked bleak in the 1970s. Around that time (I wish I knew more details) cities began to consciously try to attract residents. As the old industrial infrastructure was abandoned new areas opened to residents who converted warehouses into lofts, clubs, and restaurants. The initial urban pioneers were young people who reacted to the perceived sterility of suburbia by fostering the arts and culture. This coincided with the transition in our country (esp. our cities) from a manufacturing based economy to a service one – also making cities more livable. As we moved into the past 20 years living in the city became hip (think Seinfeld and Friends). All the new residents brought new amenities, new construction, and a new real estate market. Indeed some of the long time residents of the city no longer could afford to live there and some neighborhoods were quickly changed as the YUPpies (Young Urban Professionals) invaded.

On the whole I see the flight to the suburbs as a novel mid-20th century experiment. One that ultimately wasn’t very healthy. Gentrification is part of the correction. I think this is the view that informs the quote at the top of this post.

Unfortunately it is far from a painless (or harmless) correction. One of the chief problems is people moving into the city with no intention of staying. Planning on cashing out on their real estate investment with little view to the long term development of their neighborhood. Nor are they concerned that the neighborhoods continue to support people in a variety of life stages from young children to the elderly. When the yuppies completely take over and re-purpose the neighborhood to the interest of young professionals this is a problem. This is closely related to the neglect of local history and failure to appreciate the local customs and institutions that define a place.

There is also the problem of a reverse white flight. Yuppies are mostly (but not always) white. As these people (people like myself) move into a neighborhood they may expect the “minority” members of the neighborhood to adapt to their culture or leave. A white invasion often with political and economic connections can easily displace former resident and they are justly angered by it.

It easy to see why gentrification has such negative connotations to many in our cities. But I don’t think it is wrong for young people to move into the city, nor do I think that it is a bad thing for wealthy people to move into the city, finally, I don’t think it is reasonable to expect cities not to change. So how do we accomodate the young and the wealthy? How do can we have both change and justice? These are topics I would like to read more about and welcome your suggestions.

If revival would sweep our society so that God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven…

  • Would houses be closer together or further apart?
  • Would public buildings like courthouses be more grand or more plain?
  • Would savings on law enforcement go toward parks or tax breaks?
  • Noting that John’s biblical vision of heaven takes the form of a city rather than a garden author Eric Jacobsen explores faith and the city in his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom. He begins with questions including those above to encourage reflection on how our theology shapes our civic vision and intriguingly how cities can influence our theology. Urging us to think of cities not only as mission fields but also as places that can uniquely teach us Christian truths. Instead of thinking only about how we can save the city, it is time to think about how the city can save us.

    Here I will note an important secondary argument that runs throughout this book – that modern suburbs are spiritually impoverished places built on the hollow promises of individual autonomy and safety. Places where it is hard to encounter grace. I have often heard people denigrate suburbia, but here I found a developed argument on why suburbs are not Christian. This argument fits well with some of my thinking on Church and culture and I think it has a lot to commend it.

    However, Jacobsen does not think all urban life is equally blessed. Instead he promotes “New Urbanism” a collection of ideas on how to build cities on a sustainable human scale. Cities where neighbors are encouraged to mingle with each other and public spaces are created for encountering the outsider or stranger. Communities that preserve local history and cultivate art and intellectual exchanges. In these communities Jacobsen believes the believer can best learn to love our neighbor, to practice hospitality, and to proclaim the gospel.

    I found a lot of interesting and encouraging ideas in this book and have enjoyed reading and discussing it this summer (thanks Friar Tuck for the suggestion). I think that our geography does shape our faith and that urban Christianity is different than Christianity in other contexts. I hope to share some more practical reflections on this book later but in the meantime I would encourage you to check it out.


    Posted: August 10, 2009 in Uncategorized

    Walking across a lush lawn, down a hill, towards a pond in a Worcester park, I noticed my 5 year old nephew carrying a dandelion. A white, seedy one.

    I said maybe they don’t want dandelions growing all over the park to which he turned with big earnest eyes and told me:

    “Dandelions grow to the glory of God.”

    That made me smile and think all week – thanks Bambino!

    photo by nerdegutt

    photo by nerdegutt