Tuesday, October 28, 2008

At Large and At Small

One of my favorite authors is Anne Fadiman. Formerly editor of Civilization and American Scholar, Fadiman came on my radar screen with her fabulous book of familiar essays on books and reading called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. When she talked about her various book fetishes, and especially her detestation for those who mark their place in a book by flipping the book over in such a way that could potentially crack the spine--well, suffice it to say that I had a major crush on her. My wife knows that I secretly gave our daughter the middle name "Anne" to honor Anne Fadiman (and also Anne of Green Gables, but that is a different post). Because of my crush on Anne, I bought every issue of American Scholar in which her column, "At Large and At Small," appeared. Although she was forced out at the Scholar as editor, thankfully her essays have been collected and published as At Large and At Small. Once again, Fadiman demonstrates that she is the Queen of the Familiar Essay and friend of all those who enjoy the polite conversation of that form.

And so, she points the "gentle reader" to the biography of the perfecter of the familiar essay form, Charles Lamb ("The Unfuzzy Lamb"); to the champion of 19th century Romanticism and his penchant for running away ("Coleridge the Runaway"); and to her own history and biography as it merges in her passions for "collecting nature," "ice cream," and "coffee" (each with a laugh out-loud moment). But there are very thoughtful essays her as well, especially her reflections on the culture wars ("Procrustes and the Culture Wars") and on patriotism post-9/11 ("A Piece of Cotton").

These are essays to cherish not only because of the content, but because of the graciousness of form and style. I can almost imagine myself sitting across the table from her, sipping on a grande pumpkin spice latte, engaging in humorous and thoughtful dialogue (at least on her part). And in some regard, the best essay writers are able to engage in a dialogue with their readers in such a way that they take the common places of life and point them to something more. That is why they become such friends and why I return to Anne Fadiman's books again and again.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

El Hombre, no. 2

[For El Hombre, no. 1, see here]

For Cardinals fans, the season was not a complete loss (after all, the Cubs lost in the first round of the playoffs). In addition, Albert is collecting postseason awards: Sporting News' Player of the Year and MLBPA's NL Outstanding Player. Surely he is set up to win his second NL MVP this season.

Preaching what is true and precious

Wise words from John Piper:

A word to preachers. Truth and falsehood is a good pair of categories to use when deciding what to preach. Speak truth not falsehood.

But there is another crucial pair of categories. God tells Jeremiah that he must use this pair if he would be faithful: Therefore thus says the Lord: “...If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. (Jeremiah 15:19)

In deciding what to preach make these two judgments: Is it true and is it precious? Preach what is both. If it is true, preach it with authority. If it is precious, preach it with passion.

One great reason why some preaching leaves people unmoved is that preachers seem unmoved. Is this precious or isn’t it? That is the question in the hearts of the people. If it is, why don’t you sound like it?

The great battle of preaching is to see what's true and to savor what's precious. Weak seeing and weak savoring are a curse to God’s people.

Brothers, plead for deliverance from this curse. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. They are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalms 19:9-10).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wendell Berry on the Web

For whatever reason, I've just now stumbled across Wendell's publisher website that has an excellent set of resources for his writing, especially a map of Port William and a genealogy of the town. These things were flyleaves for his recent books, but now you can print out PDF versions, which could save you having to flip back and forth to keep everything straight.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bear Market

I'd be lying if I said I was unconcerned by the eight days (counting today) of major losses that the NYSE has absorbed. Each day, I get to work and have the NYSE website up following the market; each day, I see the Dow get hammered; and each day, I go home a bit depressed.

I'm not depressed for myself--I have hardly any stocks except in my 403(b) plan and I'm young enough that I would expect that these losses will be recouped down the road. But I think about all those who are hurting as a result of these losses--a friend whose wife's stock has dropped from $59 to $2; a family member who has to guide his organization through these difficult times; another family member who just retired and now is wondering whether he left too early. I think about our endowment and the endowments of other evangelical seminaries; I think about those saints in our congregations who support ministries through their stock dividends.

No doubt there are those whose lives are characterized by greed. But it is important to remember those people (and institutions) who have invested funds in the stock market as a way of supporting their families, funding their retirements, or even supporting their biblical and spiritual mission.

It is at these times that my heart and mind are pulled back to Psalm 62: "For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him;God is a refuge for us." I take my heart to God--he is a refuge and a rock, even in a world that seems like it is shaking. I can pour my heart out to him, because he hears in his strength and his might. And I find him to be salvation and glory, even when I find I must tighten my belt a bit. I wait for God in silence and hope that he will speak.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Green Bible

I'm not sure we need this. The official website is here. The features: "Green-Letter Edition: verses and passages that speak to God's care for creation highlighted in green" and "A personal green Bible trail guide." Hmmm.

After the Baby Boomers

While American evangelical leaders pay attention to sociological data, they more typically read George Barna or Thom Rainer, church growth experts who utilize social trends to chart the way forward for churches. The person to whom these leaders should pay attention is Robert Wuthnow. The Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Wuthnow has contributed seminal books that have set the conversation for understanding American religion, particularly The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). What sets him apart from both professional sociologists and evangelical church growth gurus is his coupling together of sociological rigor with a deep love for Christianity and the church.

This combination makes After the Baby Boomers important reading for all those who desire to reach and teach our current generation of young adults. Wuthnow suggested that most sociologists of religion as well as congregational leaders still remain overly focused on the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), both as a subject of study as well as potential influence on American religion. Against this, he noted that the current generation of young adults (those born between 1965 and 1981) represent a significant share of the population and demand appropriate research that demonstrates continuities and discontinuities with the ways their parents approached Christianity.

As the major contribution to such research, Wuthnow observed that “the single word that best describes young adults’ approach to religion and spirituality—indeed life—is tinkering” (p. 13; emphasis his). This tinkering approach was clearest in the chapter on spirituality: there Wuthnow helpfully broke down the younger generation’s tendency both to “church shop” (which “involves tinkering with one’s religious loyalties by looking for a congregation to attend” and eventually join) and “church hop” (which “involves going from one congregation to another, rather than settling into a single congregation”; pp. 114-5). He suggested that this generation of young adults is more likely to shop for a church home or hop from church to church because of greater mobility, higher social class of parents, generally higher education levels than previous generations.

Young adults’ also seem to tinker with their beliefs. While opinion polls suggest that young adults are neither less orthodox nor more secular than previous generations, Wuthnow noticed that these young people are more likely to engage in “pick-and-choose orthodoxy” that suggests a hedging that allows them to honor traditional beliefs while making their way through the modern world. For example, an young adult may affirm both that the Bible is without error and literally true and that other religions provide pathways of salvation; or he or she may affirm both the biblical account of creation and scientific evolution without worrying about how to harmonize the two accounts.

All this raises the issue of choice, which is seen as an American cultural good and a key value for young adults. Empowered to make determinations about work, schooling, marriage, beliefs, and values in ways that are fairly unprecedented in world history, this generation of young people utilizes its power to choose in ways that are creative at times and banal at others. Creativity comes in approaches to belief: while a young person may be raised in a Christian congregation, he may couple Christianity with thoughts from the Qur’an, The Celestine Prophecy, New Age, and Buddhism (cf. pp. 113-4). On the other hand, it appears that young people value popular culture—and particular streams of it—as meaningful for their spiritual journeys. For example, one of the most important spiritual contexts for prayer or meditation, more important than reading the Bible, is listening to music. And the music these young people prefer is overwhelmingly contemporary pop or rock music; far from being musical omnivores, this generation speaks the language of (generally banal) pop music.

That said, surprisingly, this generation does not want contemporary Christian or gospel music in their worship services. While Baby Boomers overwhelmingly prefer that kind of music for worship, the younger generation does not. In fact, only 12 percent of those in their twenties whom Wuthnow surveyed said “they would like to see their congregation have a service featuring contemporary music” (p. 224). However, young adults see culture as providing important means for answering the deeper questions of life and desire their congregations to engage with contemporary music, movies, and the arts as important for spirituality.

In the end, the most important factor for involving young people in congregations resides with young people themselves: marriage and children. Wuthnow’s study showed the least represented age group within congregations to be twenty-somethings; these young people come back to the church in their thirties as they married and had children. However, Wuthnow pointed out that the thing that should give congregational leaders pause is that this generation is either marrying later and having children later or not even marrying or reproducing at all. In addition, this generation is even more committed than their parents to the type of lifestyle which demands two incomes in the household. As a result, churches must be creative in figuring out how to minister to single adults in their twenties while preparing to assist them as they marriage and have children in their thirties.

Often witty, always insightful, I found Wuthnow’s book a rich feast for thinking about the generation of students which I teach. But I also found it interesting to read about my own generation; as a Gen Xer (born 1970), it was fascinating to see attitudes which I shared as well as ways in which I differed. There were so many places that I said to myself, “Yes, he’s got that right.” As a result, those who care about this rising generation of young people cannot afford to miss this book.