Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Four

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.

~~~

A few days later Dr. Doctrine and the Pied Piper met. Dr. Doctrine beamed brighter and brighter as they spoke: here, finally, was someone who understood the real priorities of medicine: first, do no harm; thereafter, prescribe the whole cure for the whole person. More than that, though: here was someone who could communicate the importance of good medical care in ways that made people eager to be treated, eager to make important life changes, eager to be healed and made whole. The Pied Piper could beat Dee Constructionist and Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc at their own game, and the town would be better off for it.

The day of the presentation came, and a large crowd gathered to learn the Pied Piper’s “exciting new method.” They were surprised to see Dr. Doctrine on the stage, but throughout his enthralling presentation the Pied Piper, true to his word, directed his audience to “seek true, whole healing,” which they would find at Dr. Doctrine’s office. By the end of the presentation, whole families were rushing the stage to thank the Pied Piper and to schedule appointments with Dr. Doctrine.

Things are better in town these days. Dee Constructionist and Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc are still in business, but they’re not growing like they had been, and more and more people are recognizing the flaws in their philosophies. Meanwhile, Dr. Doctrine hasn’t just added patients but other doctors, people who are committed, as he is, to treating the whole person with whole cures. This is, of course, nothing new: patients throughout the ages have needed exactly this kind of patient care. But sometimes the rediscovery of old things changes everything, people begin to look not just to the next new thing but to the tested and true. In doing so they move from sickness to health, from death to life. You might even say they’ve been born again. Dr. Doctrine is just fine with that: of all the medical care he offers his patients, new birth is his favorite practice.

~~~

To be continued . . . ?

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Three

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.

~~~

Things went on pretty much the same for a while. Dr. Doctrine saw fewer and fewer patients while his chief competitors grew larger and more prosperous. Then one day, as he sipped his coffee and flipped through the local paper, he saw an article that captured his imagination.

“Music Is the Best Medicine,” read the headline. A photograph sat alongside the text, a picture of a man playing a flute in a hospital, while sick children danced around him. The article wrote in glowing terms about this “exciting new model” of medical care, referring to the doctor as “a Pied Piper” whose “personal approach” was making patients excited about having their illnesses treated. This Pied Piper would be visiting the town in a week to elaborate on his approach. “A measure of music,” the article concluded, “makes the medicine go down.”

Dr. Doctrine leaned back in his chair. Is this just another flavor of the month? he wondered. Or does this “Pied Piper” truly care about his patients’ health? Just then, Dr. Doctrine’s phone rang. He reached over and picked up the receiver. “Dr. Doctrine’s office,” he said cheerfully. “Dr. Doctrine speaking.”

“Dr. Doctrine, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you,” the voice on the other line spoke. “I don’t know if you’ve read today’s paper, but I’m the ‘Pied Piper of Medicine’ visiting your town next week. I’ve looked into your practice and feel a real affinity with your approach to patient care. I was wondering if you’d be willing to join me on the stage at my presentation next week.”

Dr. Doctrine readily accepted the invitation, if for no other reason than to be available to push back against bad medical advice. But the Pied Piper wanted more. “I’d love to come visit you before the event, to compare notes about patient care, to make sure we’re in agreement. When I visit towns like this, I like to be able to refer my audience to a doctor who knows what real medicine looks like, and I think you might be that doctor for your town.”

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Great Big Friendship Blog: Keith--Friend, Leader, Bro

My friend Sarah Cunningham is running an experiment on her blog, encouraging people to show their appreciation to their friends. She's calling it the "Great Big Friendship Blog." Check it out; I think you'll like it.

The experiment happened to coincide with a surprise celebration for a friend of mine, Keith, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. Several of his friends were asked to reflect on what he has meant to our lives. What follows are my comments. Thanks, Sarah, for the excuse to share them more broadly; thanks, Keith, for inspiring them in the first place.

~~~

I was trying to think about whether I would talk about Keith as a friend, or Keith as a leader.

On the one hand, he’s been present to some of the most significant moments of my life. He was at, even in, my wedding. He and his family helped us move into our house. He came to my book signings. He and Angela were the first to visit us after my wife’s surgery this year. We’ve traveled together. We’ve even surfed together, and I’ve only surfed once in my whole life ever. So it’d be pretty easy to talk about Keith as a friend.

But then again, he’s also been a significant leader in my life. When I first moved to the area, he was a youth pastor and I was one of his volunteers. When we later worked together in an organization he started, he was my boss. When I got married, he officiated at the wedding. When we’ve traveled together, it’s been mainly me helping him on projects he’s taken on for himself. And when I wasn’t helping him on those projects, he was pitching me other projects to work with him on. So it’d be pretty easy to talk about Keith as a leader.

But then again, he hasn’t ceased to be my friend when he’s been my leader. And he hasn’t ceased to be a leader when he’s been my friend. Those two categories of relationship commingle with Keith—and not just with me. As I’ve observed over time, Keith offers friendship and leadership interchangeably to the people in his life. They’re a bonded pair for Keith, a mixed bag sometimes but always there together—friend and leader, leader and friend.

So to call Keith my friend doesn’t seem respectful enough of the influence he’s been in my life. And to call him my leader seems to downplay the very personal role he’s played in my life. I need a different word, a third word. It doesn’t have to consolidate the two, like friendler or something stupid like that. It just needs to be distinctly Keithy.

So I thought about it, and I settled on a word: Bro.

Keith is the only person in my forty-two years of life who has regularly called me "Bro." I’ve never called him "Bro" back until now. It’s just not in my lexicon. Bro is an artifact of a culture I know only through Keith. It only shows up in my life when Keith is in the room.

I know I’m not Keith’s only Bro, of course, because I’ve been at get-togethers at his house where people were throwing the word Bro around like it was a party trick. I have a friend who recently discovered that we both know Keith; he told me that he and a mutual friend occasionally recall a time when they both would see Keith regularly. They look at each other, get really quiet and serious for a moment, and just say one word to each other: “Bro.”

But I like the word Bro for Keith, because presumably it’s the short form of the word brother, and I think the word brother is an apt description of Keith—not just for me, but for a lot of people. Keith shines the brightest, in my opinion, as a friend and a leader when he is faced with friends who have happened on hard times. I’ve watched him fly across country to be with someone who’s struggling. I’ve watched him agonize for long periods of time over how to care for people who are hurting, challenge people who are digging their own graves, restore people who have either been removed or removed themselves from significant relationships. I’ve watched Keith go through adversity with people, unsatisfied with the prospect of merely praying for them or merely being there for them in a latent, passive kind of way.

Proverbs 17:17 says that a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. We live in a time when it’s easy to be a friend—you’re never more than a click away. And it’s easy to be a leader: you just declare yourself one and read a book or two. It’s even easy to love in a culture like ours, when we’re too busy for loving one another to mean anything material, anything more than emotionalism or sentimentality. But it’s still hard to be a brother, and it’s harder still to be a brother for a time of adversity. That’s what Keith is: a brother for a time of adversity, where his friendship and his leadership align most clearly and creatively.

But brother is far too stodgy and formal a word for someone like Keith, so I’ll settle for Bro. Thanks, Bro, for your broship.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Two

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.

~~~

As frustrating as Dee Constructionist’s editorial was, it wasn’t Dr. Doctrine’s only problem. She had, it was true, been siphoning off a good number of his patients—patients he’d known from birth—but she wasn’t the only one. Also new to town was another competitor, this one appearing to be more in line with Dr. Doctrine’s philosophy but in actuality being just as dangerous as Dee Constructionist.

Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc had set up shop a couple of months ago. He had advertised heavily, targeting not Dr. Doctrine but Dee Constructionist with attack ads and making a strong, sometimes provocative case for a medical approach to health care. Dr. Doctrine had appreciated this re-assertion of medical care (although he found the tone sometimes abrasive), but as he observed the new medical practice he realized a shocking truth: DeBlanc wasn’t so much treating people as he was medicating people. Want to lose weight? Take this pill. Want to improve your sex life? Take that pill. Want to get rid of your cancer? Try this one or that one. For DeBlanc, every pill was the same hammer, and every malady was the same nail.

Dr. Doctrine had lost some patients to DeBlanc too. They had grown impatient with his slow, deliberate approach to treatment; they had grown tired of his seemingly intrusive questions about their diet and other personal habits. Mostly they were just looking for something new—either the exotic and empowering “self-care” promoted by Dee Constructionist or the formulaic approach on offer from Phil N. DeBlanc. In a world where the new and novel is king, the tried and true often gets sent into exile.

Dr. Doctrine was saddened by his town’s fickle and misguided thinking about its health, and he was of course worried about the sustainability of his practice. But he was resolute in his philosophy: patient care is inherently personal, it has an undeniable objectivity, and it is absolutely essential for patient well being. So he soldiered on, hoping for the cultural tide to turn in his favor, to his town’s benefit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter One

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

This little story goes way against type for me. My friend and I think very differently about, among many other things, the way the Christian faith is best propagated in the world. In brief, self-serving terms: my friend believes that God's wrath is the clearest expression of the gospel; I think that when the apostle John wrote that "God is love," he meant that love ought to be the key characteristic of the gospel message and the church's mission.

That being said, I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me, even with the people I find disagreeable. It helps that my conversation partner in this respect is a friend; once again, love starts, surrounds and sustains the stories we find ourselves in.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.

~~~

To be born again, it’s been said, first you have to die. That sounds horrible, but some deaths are more sad than horrible; they happen over time so subtly that we don’t so much acknowledge the death as forget the life. Some births are like that too—taking place in hidden places, passing the notice of the many. Sometimes the only ones that notice either death or birth (or rebirth) are the doctors that take note of them.

Dr. Doctrine was one such doctor. He’d been around a long time. An anchor of the community, he knew the families in this place intimately. He had treated their illnesses and made difficult judgments concerning their care, judgments that sometimes hurt for a moment but always served their overall health and protected the broader community. Dr. Doctrine was as wise as he was gracious, and the community depended on his help to stay healthy—even to know when it was sick.

You might be surprised to hear it, but even doctors fall in and out of favor. One day Dr. Doctrine unlocked the door of his office, turned the faded sign from “closed” to “open,” and sat at his desk to read the latest issue of the local paper. He had lived long enough and seen enough of life that nothing in the paper surprised him—nothing, that is, until he turned to the editorial page, at which point he promptly spilled his coffee and nearly choked.

“Dr. Doctrine Is No Friend of Patients” read the headline on the left. He had heard such mutterings in the street, on occasion, when circumstances had forced the occasional quarantine, or when saving the life of a patient had meant amputating a limb, or when patients were unready to hear the hard truth of his diagnosis and left his office in tears, untreated. To the untrained eye, particularly the untrained eye of the skeptic, such care often seemed unfeeling and even hurtful. But here, emblazoned in print, seemingly reflecting the will of the people, was an indictment that cut to his heart.

Dr. Doctrine read on as Dee Constructionist, a local purveyor of “holistic care,” wrote at length about the hubris of modern medicine and the body’s natural capacity to heal itself. She’s right, in a way, he thought. The human body was created to be healthy, and much medical care is simply getting the things we do to ourselves out of the way so that God, the Great Physician, can bring healing. But she was also wrong, Dr. Doctrine knew firmly and passionately. A patient who simply assumed that his body would heal itself was ignoring, either unconsciously or willfully, his own culpability in his sickness. A patient who rejected medical intervention wouldn’t find himself feeling better; he’d ultimately find himself dead.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Five

I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)

A quick note on this final post: My presentation was intended for pastors in a denomination that does not ordain women. Please forgive my gendered language in the post.

~~~

The author-reader covenant isn’t just a binary relationship, of course, just as covenants themselves don’t only involve the two parties who enter into them. The best books don’t just change individuals; they change the world. That’s why books have served such a significant mission in the history of the church; that’s why writing is so embedded in the culture of the church.

But as I mentioned, we’re living in a largely post-literate age. People by and large don’t read anymore. And the church is in danger, as a result, of losing this key asset in its mission.

The danger isn’t on the side of the authors. A significant percentage of the 300,000 books published in America this year are Christian; my employer gets a couple thousand book proposals every year, and we’re only one of dozens of publishing houses. The danger is on the reader side; we need to recover the discipline of reading, and we need to help people recognize that the missional potential of reading is worth the covenantal sacrifice that comes with it.

So, how do we get people reading? There are a number of ways that pastors and other leaders can influence others back toward a culture of literacy.

One way is what I experienced: ask people in your congregations to lead other people in your congregations, or other people in their lives, in a discussion of a book that you love, or that you think they would love if they gave it a chance. It’s a big ask, for both the leader and the rest of the group, but the right book with the right set of readers can have remarkable impact.

Don’t just throw someone into it, of course. Give them a crash course in facilitating conversation—most importantly, the acknowledgment that they don’t have all the answers, and the acknowledgment that neither does the author. The best conversations about books allow for respectful dissent and critique, assuming the best of the author and acknowledging the limits of the people in the room.

Another way of cultivating a culture of reading is by citing sources in your sermons. That involves less work than it probably sounds like. The main thing is to step back from your teaching and ask yourself who have been your primary teachers on the topic. In many cases what you’ve learned will have come through books. Throw a JPG of the cover on a PowerPoint slide or just name the author and title—even at the end of the sermon, a sort of “further learning list.”

Some churches commit to reading a book as a community. This happened a couple of times with my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville: one church built a sermon series around the book; another church used the book to help them observe Lent together.

Many (not all) churches have libraries, but many of those libraries are hopelessly out of date. Victims of a culture that has moved beyond reading, they occupy spaces of a church building where nobody ever goes, or nobody ever stays. You might find a member of the congregation who has that stink of bookishness to them, and ask them to serve both as the library’s champion and its reformer. Give her a budget for one book a month and you’ll have twelve new books in your library in a year. Give her space to put the best resources of the library in people’s way—a table in the social room, a monthly plug from the pulpit, a column in the church’s newsletter. Challenge her to recruit a team to help her select books to buy or feature, or to advocate for a more robust culture of reading among the congregation.

If your church doesn’t have a library, you can take the risk of lending out (or giving away) copies of books from your own personal library. You are, for your congregation, what your favorite seminary or Bible college professor was for you: a guide into the daunting but important and ultimately edifying world of Christian thought and practice. Introduce your congregation to the books that helped you get through a tricky issue or deepen your discipleship, and I suspect they’ll gobble them up.

My wife one year organized a Christmas party for her ministry and asked everyone who came to wrap a book to exchange at the dinner table. It was to be a book that was personally meaningful, and it proved to be a significant night for people getting to know one another better and benefiting from the insights of one another. Some people took the exercise more seriously than others, but everyone remembers it, and they remember not only which book they brought but which book they took home.

~~~

Books are not magic. Not even The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia are magic. Books are a serious effort, on the part of both writers and readers, to wrestle with the basic premises and challenges of life. Books are finite—none has the last word—and because they are written and read by fallen human beings, their assertions and insights can’t be taken as gospel.

But that doesn’t mean magic doesn’t happen when a book is being written or read. By reading, by writing, we reach beyond the time and space we find ourselves in and connect ourselves not only to great cloud of witnesses, to the great heritage of Christian tradition, but to the ends of the earth. Books can be magical because mission is magical: finite, fallen, flesh and blood people acting in concert with the immortal, invisible, ineffable Creator of the universe to make the good news known among every tribe, tongue and nation, until, as the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,

we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Four

I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)

~~~

I remember when I met Brian Mahan, the author of Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose. I sort of stalked him, and then I played my “I’m an editor for a venerable Christian publishing house” card to get him to go to lunch with me. I got there late and found myself short on cash in a restaurant that didn’t take credit cards; he and his wife (who had come with him) bought me lunch and drove me back to my hotel, sending me home with a hug and a copy of his wife’s new book.

We’ve since interacted intermittently; I’ve given him publishing advice (his more recent writing doesn’t fit our publishing program well, and he has bigger aspirations than us anyway), and he’s felt comfortable enough with me to poke in helpful ways at my theology and my discipleship. Now, when I think about issues related to vocation, or ambition, or virtue in general, my thinking is informed by his thinking.

I’ve loaned his book to some of my friends. Some of them get it; some of them don’t. I’ve found that younger readers are more receptive to him—largely, I think, because he’s a college professor, and he pictures college-aged readers (or thereabouts) as he writes. Older folks have ceased thinking and feeling like college students, and so some of his stuff to them seems silly or over-the-top. That’s my guess, anyway; it works for me mainly because I refuse to grow up. In any case, Brian picked his audience as he wrote Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, and he has enjoyed the fruits of that even as he’s come to live with the side effects of it.

Picking an audience is part of the cost of the covenant when you write to be read.

  • You have to turn yourself away from some people and toward some others.
  • You have to reach beyond your own intuitive logic to write clearly, comprehensively and methodically so that a stranger, without direct access to your brain or your nonverbals, can comprehend what you’re suggesting and interact meaningfully with it.
  • You have to cut material that is personally important but, to the reader, irrelevant.
  • You have to include material that seems to you superfluous but will help the reader warm to you and enter more fully into your content.
  • You have to subject yourself to the scrutiny of often harsh critics.
  • It can feel like a great sacrifice, writing to be read.

    But the reader makes a sacrifice too.

  • At the most basic, a reader sacrifices time and money, to acquire and read what you’ve written.
  • Beyond that, a reader often stretches beyond comfort or current capacity to learn something new or be confronted with something different.
  • Or a reader endures bad prose to get to a good point.
  • Or a reader endures the mockery or even scorn of other readers who have rejected the credibility of the author they’ve chosen to read.
  • In these ways and more, reading can feel like a great sacrifice.

    Every covenant involves sacrifice, though, so why should the author-reader covenant be any different? Not all writing or reading achieves this covenantal status, but we do well to expect it and aspire to it when we choose what we read or what we write.

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Three

    I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

    I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)

    ~~~

    Guess how many books are being published in America this year. 300,000. That’s a ton of books—actually it’s more like 150 tons. Here are opening lines to some of them.

    "Your eyes are like deep blue pools that I would like to drown in,” he had told Kimberly when she had asked him what he was thinking; but what he was actually thinking was that sometimes when he recharges his phone he forgets to put the little plug back in but he wasn’t going to tell her that.
    Here’s another one.

    As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.
    And finally this one.

    He got down from his horse, which seemed strange to him as he had always believed that you got down from a duck or a goose.
    OK, these aren’t from actual books. These are winning entries from the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, where people attempt to come up with the worst sentences to see print.

    This contest only works if people come to it with an understanding: some writing is truly awful. That’s not the only understanding, of course: some writing, we all recognize, is truly good. The trick is recognizing the difference. In this case, the finalists in the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest are, counterintuitively, good writing: so bad that they’re good, they fulfill their promise to their readers by creatively crafting the worst possible sentences. In these awful sentences, the writer and reader come together and celebrate the result.

    Put two strangers in a room together—people from two distinct cultures, without a common language—and before too long they’ll figure out ways of communicating. Their communication may never extend beyond nonverbal signs, but it may go far beyond that, from constructing new pidgin languages out of their two native tongues, to learning to speak and understand each other’s languages.

    It’s hard work, but it can be done, and we do it because we want to: “It’s not good for the man to be alone,” God tells us in the book of Genesis. We also communicate because that’s what beings made in the image of God would do: God communicates from the beginning, speaking the universe into existence, commissioning the man and the woman in the garden, inviting the man to name all the animals in existence—teaching him, in effect, the art of communication before he has anyone to communicate with.

    It’s not a long leap from spoken language to written language, and we have evidence of writing as ancient as 3200 BC. Anything that happened before written language, as a matter of fact, is by definition prehistoric—it predates the history we have available to us because it couldn’t be written down and preserved. Ancient writing had a clear audience in mind, and in every case it served a clear purpose—the ordering of society, the explanation of human origins, the assimilation of new people (whether children or conquered peoples) into the culture of the author. It’s no wonder that the first five books of our Bible tell us of our origins, tell us how the best life is to be lived, and demonstrate how a people came to be chosen by God and what are the implications of that chosenness: these are the functions of writing at their most basic, most primal.

    Writing is covenantal; at its best it’s not merely consumed or tossed out but creates a sense of intimacy between the two parties and in some small or large way binds together their destinies.

    Friday, October 12, 2012

    Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Two

    I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

    I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)

    ~~~

    The work of discerning God’s purposes, and translating those purposes into the individual and corporate activity of God’s church, has transpired largely through the written word: often under duress, always with a sense of urgency and an eye to the needs of the world and the mission of God, God’s people have written their way to action.

  • In his letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted the “appalling silence of the good people” in the face of a violently racist system in the American South.
  • In the Barmen Declaration a gathering of European Christian leaders rejected the idolatry being practiced by the state church of Germany under the influence of Adolf Hitler.
  • Martin Luther wrote down 95 laments of the conduct of the church and posted it on the door of the Castle Church Wittenberg.
  • John Wycliffe translated the Scriptures into the common language of the people against the will of the church hierarchy.
  • Bishop Augustine of Hippo strove to make sense of the destruction of Christian Rome at the hands of infidels.
  • And the apostle Paul wrote letters to fledgling churches from in and out of prison.
  • Jesus wrote in the sand; Yahweh wrote on stone tablets; the Spirit writes on our hearts. “What else can one do,” King wrote of his particular ripe time for action, in a line that as well as any reflects the ongoing vocation of God’s people: “other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

    We forget about all that writing in the history of the church, and—more to the point—all that reading. The reading gets relegated to seminary training and sermon prep; the writing is elevated to the point of irrelevance, absolving laypeople of informing and educating themselves and segregating robust discipleship to a clerical core. It wasn’t always the case, however. We’ve seen examples of Christian writing with a general audience in mind—from the mountaintop down, so to speak. But there has in our history been a robustly theological grass roots as well. In AD 381 Gregory of Nyssa wrote the following:

    Every place in the city is full of theologians--the back alleys and public squares, the streets, the highways--clothes dealers, money changers, and grocers are all theologians . . .

    If you inquire about the value of your money, some philosopher explains wherein the Son differs from the Father. If you ask the price of bread, your answer is the Father is greater than the Son. If you should want to know whether the bath is ready, you get the pronouncement that the Son was created out of nothing!*
    This is what good writing produces, when that good writing is paired with a shared pursuit of truth and wisdom between the clergy and the laity, between the scholars and the nonscholars—when all followers of Jesus understand themselves as disciples of a common teacher, a common savior. Good writing, when read well, produces people in all corners of society who are passionate about the truths of God and the advancement of God’s kingdom, and who commit themselves to where the truth and the mission takes them.

    This kind of passion can be elicited in short forms, of course. Christian tweets outperform Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber on Twitter.** But the long form of book writing lends itself to the slow curative process evident in all the great documents of the church we’ve discussed so far. Letters, theses, books, translations and declarations were carefully crafted, prayed over, sweated over. They took a while to make, and then they were put in front of an audience to sweat over, pray over, carefully read and discuss. And the world and the people in it changed as a result.

    ~~~

    *Quoted in “Christ Conquers Caesar,” in A History of Christianity, by Charles Scott Kimball, The Xenophile Historian.

    **I heard this on NPR. I can’t locate the story on their website, but essentially postings to accounts for Christian authors like Ann Voscamp get retweeted more often and more regularly than posts from million-follower account holders like Gaga and Bieber.

    Wednesday, October 10, 2012

    Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part One

    I recently, twice in one day in fact, offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I had ten pages' worth of stuff.

    About two pages into the morning session, someone raised their hand and asked if I could help them get their book published. And we spent the next forty-five minutes talking about that.

    In the afternoon I tweaked my outline and abandoned my script, and I promised to get to getting yourself published by the end of the session. We jumped to publishing before I finished my intro.

    Sigh. One in every five adult Americans never reads a book, but it seems like every man, woman and child has at least one book proposal in my in box. It's a participatory, creative culture we're in, with semingly little regard for what happens with the content we create.

    I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. And I determine the content of this blog. So I'm going to publish it; frankly, I don't really care if you read it or not. :)

    I'll begin with an exercise that we went through at the start of both sessions: two books you love, and one book you hate. After people shared their choices, I shared mine.

    ***

    I knew this was coming, so I brought my three books with me.

  • Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, by Brian Mahan. It’s my favorite all-time book; I reviewed it for the book Besides the Bible: 100 Books That Have, Should or Will Shape Culture. It’s about ambition, vocation and virtue, and it’s clever and practical and a bit mind-bending. Loved it; read it every couple of years—I’m overdue to read it again, actually.
  • The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers. I like those mid-century British authors, and in this book she shows how her interest in drama and mystery draws from (and in return, informs) her deep faith.
  • That leaves the one book I hate. For the record, it’s not the only one. But I picked The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. It was, to my mind, too formulaic, too reductionist, too brand-driven. Beyond that, it was written in such short, unsophisticated sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I’m an editor; I like a little more literariness than that. (It should be noted that I formed this opinion without having actually read the book.)
  • Imagine my chagrin, then, when my pastor asked me to lead a small group through, not Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, not The Mind of the Maker, but The Purpose-Driven Life. You’ll be glad to know I set my jaw and heeded my pastor. And that’s where I discovered the power of a book.

    My small group was made up of people who were recent converts, recent return-to-churchers, recent discoverers of Christianity as a culture. None were particularly well acclimated to small groups, let alone book discussions.

    At least a few of them hated reading. Hated it. Fell asleep one paragraph into it. We are, in many ways, a post-literate generation; books are intimidating and frustrating and boring all at once—one in five American adults read on average zero books a year. The poster children of that generation were circled around me in folding chairs, each having dropped $15 on a hardback edition of one of the bestselling books of all time.

    And they went for it! We had long, deep, rich conversations about the nature of faith, calling, struggle, hope, all that stuff. People came prepared every week. At the end of the book each of them could name real ways in which their lives had changed, and each of them signed up for another session.

    Behold the power of a book. There’s nothing magical about The Purpose-Driven Life. What’s really going on is something more primal: we were created as creative, inquisitive beings, and we were made to know God by a God who knows us and wants to be known by us, and to discover the similarities and differences in one another, to achieve communion with God and ourselves. A book, like any writing, like any communication, is essentially kindling: a spark to get a fire going.

    ***

    Part two coming soon.

    Monday, October 08, 2012

    Workers of the World, Good Luck

    Several months ago now I read the results of a survey of Harvard Business School alumni that continues to be relevant today, even as the unemployment rate ticks down and the presidential race comes to a head. According to the report, alumni see the U.S. economy as falling behind emerging economies like China, India and Brazil; meanwhile, a majority of companies contemplating relocation outside of the United States winds up doing just that. A paltry minority of those same companies (@10 percent) decides to stay; the rest are still mulling it over.

    Respondents suggested that the United States could improve its reputation and retain these prodigal companies through high-level efforts like improving education and simplifying the tax code. Maybe it's a prejudice I have against giant corporations, but I have the sneaking suspicion that these companies are distracting us from the reality that, according to our measures of what constitutes a living wage, most of the world is mired in economic injustice. People vote with their feet, and so we should listen to what the feet have to say:

    Among respondents who had decided to move operations out of the United States over the past year, 70 percent cited lower wages as the reason they chose a new location, pointing to what is widely seen as emerging markets' main advantage.
    The world doesn't have a class problem; it increasingly has a caste problem, as emerging economies assert themselves on the strength of disenfranchised workers and as the underclass in the United States and other fading economies are being made permanent. All this while, from my limited vantage point, Western labor unions seem to concentrate on agitating not for decent wages and working conditions for all workers everywhere but for a bigger piece of the pie they've colluded with management to bake--bigger, less sustainable pensions and the like. Recent and highly publicized labor disputes have not focused on solidarity so much as singularity: This is what we, the union in question, want; and you, the management in question, will give it to us. Not to paint the entire labor movement with too broad a brush, but my sense is that it's grown myopic as it's become mainstreamed in the American economy. The mantra of the labor movement was, at one time, "Workers of the world, unite!" From where I sit, it seems to have become something closer to "Workers of the world, good luck!"

    What do I know, though? I've never been part of a labor union (my field doesn't require it) and I rarely leave the country. Meanwhile, I'm sure that through my unconsidered consumer practices, I'm unconsciously but actively colluding with these prodigal businesses in the exploitation of workers the world over. My iPhone likely comes at a cost to factory workers overseas; my jeans may well have some poor Majority World child's sweat and blood on them. I'm not exactly sure what to do about that, but I would think that the labor movement could help me know what to do. We talk fairly regularly (and loudly) as a country about "buying American"; seems like we need just as loud (if not louder) a refrain borrowed from Martin Luther King: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," he wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

    That doesn't fit on a sign or a bumper sticker or a tweet, though, and that's the extent of solidarity in action these days. So, workers of the world, good luck, I guess.