Saturday, October 27, 2012

Another book review: and this one's a 3-fer!

In the last month or so, I've read three different books with a common theme:  if you want to explore an idea, don't just research it or think about it.  Instead, do an experiment.

I started with Practicing the Way of Jesus:  Life Together in the Kingdom of Love by Mark Scandrette. The basic idea is that being a disciple means literally to be a learner and that the best way we learn is by practicing new ways of being and then reflecting on them in a group of other people who are practicing in similar ways.

When I heard Mark speak last year at a conference, he told the story of one group who took the teaching of John the Baptist that if you have two coats, you should give one away and decided to support each other in the process of giving away half their belongings.  Other groups have built experiments around practicing Sabbath or going without television or praying the daily office or giving to the poor.

Of course, most of us believe that we should practice the Sabbath or give more to charity or watch less TV or pray more.  The challenge here is to 1) find our challenge in the teachings of Jesus, 2) create a specific, time-limited experiment to practice that challenge, and 3) to share the experiment with a group of people who all commit to the same thing, practicing both accountability and a sharing of the learning.

The second book I read was 7 by Jen Hatmaker, which I've already reviewed twice on this blog.  In an effort to explore the effect of consumerism on her life, Jen gathers a group of people to support her as she takes on a series of one-month experiments.  Although she clearly did a lot of research about consumerism and its stranglehold on our culture, she made it personal by going without most foods, by giving away 7 items every day for 30 days, by going without media of all kinds (including her 3 kids in that one), by avoiding products associated with injustice and oppression (including coffee and chocolate) and so on.  She reflects on what she learned by doing in a painfully and hilariously authentic conversation with the reader.

The third book was the one I read on the plane going and coming from MI this week:  A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans.  Rachel wanted to explore both the supposed biblical and cultural expectations placed on women, especially religious women, and also wanted to challenge the biblical literalism of modern evangelical faith.

At different times during the year, she mothered a pretend baby, slept in a tent and carried around a stadium seat during her period, submitted to her husband's every whim and called him "master," kept a spotless house, reached out to the oppressed and needy, and refrained from talking in church.  The book is gimmicky, yes, but also creative, whimsical and subversive and it does a terrific job of exploring how we interpret the Bible when it comes to certain issues and how we interpret it differently when it comes to others.  People who lack a sense of irony or satire will not get this book, which means most of the people who need to read it won't really be able to.  The rest of us will really enjoy it, though, and it's a fun read.

What I loved about all three of these books was the sadly surprising idea of actually learning by doing when it comes to matters of faith and learning in public and learning with a group of people.  The different approaches to this reminded me of the Wesleys and the Methodists, the founders of AA, and yes, Jesus and the disciples.  I've already formed three new experiments of my own and I'm looking forward to learning what I learn.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A tiny miracle

I was at Barnes and Noble at Sunset Valley today (had to buy Rachel Held Evan's new book while it was still warm) when a man came in yelling and waving his arms around.  He had unkempt, greasy hair and wore clothes that were dirty and ill-fitting and he was clearly agitated, shouting at whoever would listen that he had paid good money for something (I couldn't understand what) and that he was being ripped off.

I didn't pay much attention at first as it seemed that someone stepped in to calm him down and then I didn't hear anything from him anymore.  However, when I got to the cash register, two managers were talking with him, trying to explain that the large, expensive-looking book he held in his hands was not re-sellable and that they couldn't give him any money for it and also trying to explain that the book he had ordered had been sent back because he hadn't picked it up.

He got more and more upset as they talked to him and clearly had no plans to give up his conviction that he was being cheated.  Then, as I stood there waiting to pay, two police officers came in and stood behind him at a polite distance, then moved in and escorted him out of the store.  I have to admit, I had the fear that once he was out of the sight of paying customers, he would be treated roughly or arrested.  As I left the store with my book (I got the last copy, by the way), one of the officers was advising the store managers of their rights in asking an unruly customer to leave.

What surprised me was what was happening on the sidewalk outside.  A middle-aged deputy was patiently explaining to the man about why his book was no longer available and even got out a calendar to show him when it would come in again and what day he should come to pick it up, writing the date on a piece of paper and handing it to him.  His voice was casual and calm, as though he were talking to a friend, and the man was equally calm, thanking the deputy for his help and getting ready to amble away.

Witnessing this small moment of kindness and dignity made me grateful for people who do a difficult job in a redemptive way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book review #1 (and it's a twofer!)

Jen Hatmaker has become one of my favorite new bloggers/authors in the last couple of months, mostly because I just read (and loved) her most recent two books:  Interrupted:  An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith and 7.

I liked her in her first life, when she was a regular Bible teacher and pastor's wife who wrote for young women, and I recommended her to the young women in my Sunday School class.  But in her second life--after being interrupted and ruined forever for life as usual--she is something else:  authentic and challenging and fierce.

If you want to get a feel for her writing (and her heart), go over to her blog and read the last two or three posts.  Prepare to feel something and to change something, even if you're an old cynic like me.

Interrupted is her own story about being interrupted by the brokenness of this world and the call of God to prophetic and ordinary engagement.  The story takes place on two fronts--her confrontation of herself and her own self-centeredness in the face of the brokenness of the world and the decision that she and her husband made to leave their traditional church and plant a new church (called New Church) which would focus on building a community where believers could follow this calling as a community.

I want everyone--yes, I mean everyone--to read the parts about how the world is broken and why and how we should care.  I want us all to read the parts about how Jesus calls us to this life and nothing less and hold hands and say yes.  I want you to read the story about Shane Claiborne and Jen and her new custom cowboy boots because it's just so perfect.

I have more mixed feelings about the other story line.  I loved reading about how Jen and her husband stepped out in faith to start this new church.  I want all of us to form small communities with other people to support and challenge and reinforce and love together as we collectively reach out to serve sacrificially.  I don't want everyone to leave their churches, though, at least not yet.  I want us to try to stay and reclaim, redeem, and restore . . . at least for now.  Unless, of course, God or good sense says otherwise, and then go in peace.

7 is a unique and whimsical book, chronicling a series of experiments that Jen and her friends did, in an effort to confront their patterns of consumerism 30 days at a time.  As Jen describes her efforts to eat only 7 foods for a month or to go without buying anything new or to give away 7 things a day, she is authentic, nonjudgmental (even of herself), heartbreakingly honest about the strongholds of consumerism that she confronts in herself and in the culture, and pee-your-pants hilarious.  And the story about the little pink purse?  Oh my.

It's really rare that a book can move me and change me.  These two books do, especially 7, just because it's so unique and conversational.  I'm planning to re-read both as soon as I can get to them.  And I'm taking on a couple of experiments of my own, to see what happens.  They're pretty close to my heart, so I may not write about them here, but I imagine that I'll share what I learn.

I know that several of you are reading these two books too--please leave a comment with your two cents' worth!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Speaking of cognitive dissonance . . .

If you were a fly on the wall in my house this week, you would have overheard C and me deep in conversation about whether I say “CAR-mel” corn (when referring to popcorn) and  “CAIR-uh-mehl” when referring to candy.  This mattered because I am ruthless with myself (and sometimes others) about consistency in all things.  I referred to the salted chocolates that I bought in Michigan last week as “CAIR-uh-mehls” (as I always do) and we were thinking about my inconsistency in pronunciation.  (We rarely argue in our house but when we do, it’s always over something stupid.)

Anyway, C can tell you that I am relentless about consistency in all matters theological, political or relational, which brings me to the topic of this post . . .

The other night before bed, I was reading through the biblical book of I Peter and picked up the theme in chapter 2 about submission to earthly authorities.  After enjoining all people to submit in general to kings and governors, Peter turns his attention to slaves, telling them to be submissive to their masters, even those that are cruel, because it is to our credit when we suffer unjustly. 

After ennobling the suffering of slaves by comparing it to the suffering of Jesus, he turns his attention to wives, reminding them “in the same way” to be submissive to their husbands, even those who are disobedient, to be chaste and respectful,  to have a “gentle and quiet spirit,” and to imitate Sarah, who “called her husband ‘Master.’”

I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon or reading a book about the first passage, about slaves submitting to their cruel masters.  But I’ve heard more sermons, sat through more lessons and read more books and articles about the second passage than I can count.  I’ve heard it used to explain why a wife should always let her husband make the decisions because then God will use his mistakes to bring him to repentance.  I’ve heard it used to explain why women shouldn’t be in some professions, like politics or business, because it is impossible for them to be “gentle and quiet” in those fields.  I’ve even heard it used—more than once—to explain why a woman should go back to an abusive husband, because his eternal salvation is more important than her getting slapped around every now and then (most recently by a famous conservative theologian).   (Disclaimer:  I know that many, many Christians don’t read this passage literally and would be as disturbed as I am by these ideas.  But I grew up with these ideas and they aren’t going away.)

Here’s what I don’t get:  as conservative Christians have gotten more involved in the issue of human trafficking and modern slavery, I have never once heard any of them say that we should encourage slaves to stay with their masters and submit to them rather than work for their rescue.  I’ve never heard the argument that Christian girls in other countries who are forced into prostitution should be counseled to be more submissive to their pimps or that men who are rescued out of mines or fields where they have been enslaved should instead go back to a life of servitude in order to imitate Christ. Just the opposite:  conservatives are now some of the most compassionate opponents of human trafficking.

I believe that they would say that Peter’s words to the slaves would be consistent with the Greco-Roman household codes of the day, in which slaves had no voice and no choices about their lives and no advocates for their freedom.  So why would the same people not also say the same thing about the women?  Why are the words to slaves obsolete but not the words to wives?  Note that we’re not talking about two disparate teachings in different parts of the Scriptures; we’re talking about verses separated only by a couple of related paragraphs.  Doesn't the phrase "in the same way" (I Peter 3:1) indicate that these two passages have to hang together, one way or the other?  

I want to be really clear:  this is a post about consistency (and it's opposite, cognitive dissonance), not a post about women or their rights (or lack thereof).  And let me also be clear about this:  conservatives have no more or less inconsistency than liberals and religious people are not more inconsistent than atheists.  But the consequences of inconsistency are dire. This is not a trivial theological argument akin to angels dancing on the head of a pin.  This is a place where the inability of some to see beyond their own cultural biases creates devastation for half the world's population in ways that they would never support or desire.  

This is why consistency matters.  This is why we have to be ruthless about rooting out our own cultural and religious and gender biases and lovingly holding up the mirror to each other.  I know.  One of the lessons I've heard about the subjugation of women was my own, a Sunday School lesson I taught more than once in my younger years.  And this is what repentance is:  changing our minds.

One last disclaimer:  I don't blame Peter for any of this.  He actually elevated those who were considered inferior in his culture and ennobled the suffering of those who were believed to be beneath notice and his subsequent counsel to husbands (I Peter 3:7) was nothing short of radical for his day.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A few observations

I've been watching the vice-presidential debate tonight and I figure it embodied both the best and the worst of American politics.

Now I'm listening to the pundits process what happened and it is, as you'd expect, completely and predictably partisan.  There is no listening, no learning--only an attempt to score points.

What is equally predictable and partisan is the Facebook and Twitter chatter.  A friend of mine on Facebook posted that she sure hoped that the Republicans win the election so that Facebook can go back to being fun.  Her comment was tongue-in-cheek but my laugh was real.

The only thing I want to say at this point is to refer back to the conversation we've had on this blog about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.  I'm actually hearing a lot of reference to both in the political chatter and I'm glad.

But here's what seems to be lost on most of us:  If you can only see the confirmation bias of the other side, you don't really understand how it works.