Monday, March 31, 2014

Brain scans link concern for justice with reason, not emotion

Jann Ingmire

People who care about justice are swayed more by reason than emotion, according to new brain scan research from the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Psychologists have found that some individuals react more strongly than others to situations that invoke a sense of justice—for example, seeing a person being treated unfairly or mercifully. The new study used brain scans to analyze the thought processes of people with high “justice sensitivity.”

“We were interested to examine how individual differences about justice and fairness are represented in the brain to better understand the contribution of emotion and cognition in moral judgment,” explained lead author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.   
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

According to Decety, one implication is that the search for justice and the moral missions of human rights organizations and others do not come primarily from sentimental motivations, as they are often portrayed. Instead, that drive may have more to do with sophisticated analysis and mental calculation.
Decety adds that evaluating good actions elicited relatively high activity in the region of the brain involved in decision-making, motivation and rewards. This finding suggests that perhaps individuals make judgments about behavior based on how they process the reward value of good actions as compared to bad actions.

“Our results provide some of the first evidence for the role of justice sensitivity in enhancing neural processing of moral information in specific components of the brain network involved in moral judgment,” Decety said.

- See more at:

Rohr on Brueggemann on Scripture as Template for Human Development

Scripture As Template For Development (Walter Brueggemann)
Brueggemann says there are three major segments to the Hebrew Scriptures.
1.    Torah = first half of life. 

The Torah is the period in which the people of Israel were given law, tradition, structure, certitude, order, clarity, authority, safety, and specialness. It would define them and give them their identity and hold them together. 

You have to begin with some kind of Torah in normal healthy development. And it sure helps to believe that you are the “chosen people.” That’s what parents are giving their little ones—security, safety, specialness. The possibility of divine election is first mediated and made possible through the loving gaze of your parents and those around you (even neurologically).        

2.    Prophet = toward second half of life.  

Self criticism, recognition of the dark side, without which most people (and most of religion) never move beyond tribal thinking, which is the belief that they and their group are the best, and really the “only.” It creates narcissism instead of any possibility of enlightenment.  

3.    Wisdom Literature = second half of life. 

healthy self-criticism + healthy first half of life allow you to move to the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Wisdom Literature.  Here you move into the language of mystery and paradox. Both-And thinking succeeds Either-Or thinking.  You can live withcompassion, forgiveness, patience, and tolerance. But we don’t move toward the second half until we’ve gone through the other two states. The best sequence, therefore, is order-disorder-synthesis…” 

~ Richard Rohr.


Where the Stars Are Strange: A Review of Noah



Daily Lenten Reflection (3/31)

I believe 

Not I know. Not I think. Not I feel. Not I understand. But I believe. When I am in darkness, when I do not know the way, when every step is uncertain, I walk. I live not by what I know or feel but by a trust that proves itself only after each new step is safely taken.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Christian Penumbra

HERE is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.
Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.
Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.

Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.
Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.
But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.
It isn’t hard to see why this might be. In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.
And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.

Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.
For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.
But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.

These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.

Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.
On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.
In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.

The rich West is ruining our planet

  The industrialised economies have created climate change, but the poorest are paying the price for it. We must do more to help

People stand among debris and ruins of houses destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan
People stand among debris and ruins of houses destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan  Photo: REUTERS

The storms that have battered parts of the UK this year and left hundreds of people facing the misery of flooded homes and ruined land have again brought questions about the impact of climate change to the forefront of the public consciousness. And this week the whole question has been put into still sharper focus, as the world’s leading climate scientists publish a report on the subject putting our local problems into a deeply disturbing global context.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading body of scientists in this area, will be pointing out that, appalling as the experiences of recent months have been here, we have in fact got off relatively lightly in comparison with others. It is those living in the typhoon-prone Philippines or in drought-ravaged Malawi who are being forced not only to deal with the miseries of flooded homes and prolonged disruption, but to make fundamental changes in their way of life.

We have heard for years the predictions that the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels and the consequent pouring of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to an accelerated warming of the Earth. What is now happening strongly indicates that these predictions are coming true; our actions have indeed had consequences, consequences that are deeply threatening for many of the poorest communities in the world.

The waves that destroyed railway lines in the South West and the record-breaking rainfall that flooded homes and led to the Severn and the Thames bursting their banks show what we can expect as average temperatures increase worldwide. Rising sea levels, absorbing glacial melt from polar waters, exacerbate the severity of tidal storm surges; warmer air containing more moisture will lead to increasing rainfall. The chaos experienced in Britain came as a shock to many; but for millions around the world, this is nothing new. And there is a particularly bitter injustice about the fact that those suffering its worst ravages – such as the pastoralists of northern Kenya or the Quilombolas of Brazil, descendants of former slaves cultivating territories increasingly desolated by deforestation – have done least to contribute to it.

Rich, industrialised countries, including our own, have unquestionably contributed most to atmospheric pollution; the development of profitable heavy industry relied on what we now think of as "dirty" energy sources, and involved environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale. Both our present lifestyle in the developed world and the history of how we created such possibilities for ourselves have to bear the responsibility for pushing the environment in which we live towards crisis.

 To say this is not a plea for handwringing over a history that is what it is. But, as Professor James Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist, has said: "Our parents honestly did not know that their actions could harm future generations. We, the current generation, can only pretend that we did not know." The new scientific mapping of what climate chaos is doing leaves us with little choice but to face the unpalatable fact that, unless our societies and governments step up the urgency of their response, profound injustice will be done both to the poor of today and to the entire global population of tomorrow. 

What we tend not to hear enough of in the UK is the first-hand experience of those who live with devastating climatic insecurity. It is sadly easy to treat the scientific evidence as adding up to no more than alarmist predictions which may or may not be realised. So it is vital that we hear the voices of those on the front line, for whom this is a present, not a future catastrophe. A report published this week by Christian Aid, Taken By Storm: Responding to the Impacts of Climate Change, gives us a chance to listen to these voices directly.

It sets out various examples of how communities are being forced to adapt to a distorted climate. In Bangladesh, rising sea levels have contributed to the salinisation of inland water and the loss of the mangrove forests which historically have provided a buffer against increasingly severe storm surges. In Bolivia, farmers living on the Illimani glacier have been forced into fierce conflicts over scarce resources as a result of the irregular melting of their previously stable water source; many have had to migrate.

There are, of course, some in the current debates around climate change who are doubtful about the role of human agency both in creating and in responding to climate change, and who argue that we should direct our efforts solely to adapting to changes that are natural and inevitable, rather than modifying our behaviour.

This feels all very well in the UK, where we can adapt to some extent with better flood defences and by banning building on flood plains. And of course adaptation and behaviour modification do not constitute an either/or. But these options are not so readily available in the most vulnerable communities around the world. People in these communities would agree that adaptation is crucial to save lives, livelihoods and investments – and they have some good examples to demonstrate this; but they are adamant that it won’t be enough on its own.

Current examples of climate change are the result of a global temperature rise of just 0.8C. Doing nothing about levels of fossil fuel-based pollution sits uncomfortably with the fact that, if temperatures rise by 2.5-5C above pre-industrial levels – something that many scientists believe to be possible without modifying present patterns – many adaptation measures will simply be too late.
So the communities on the front line, the communities whose voices Christian Aid is seeking to make audible, need the world to tackle the root causes and to do so urgently. A good place to start would be ending the $523 billion (£314 billion) the world spends on fossil fuel subsidies (more than six times the support given to renewables). But whatever the exact response, these two reports make it clear that we have to stop subsidizing the degradation of the planet – and that this is not a question to be tackled the day after tomorrow. The cost is now – as so many in the UK have discovered in recent months.

Dr Rowan Williams is chairman of Christian Aid

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Caring too much. That's the curse of the working classes

Why has the basic logic of austerity been accepted by everyone? Because solidarity has come to be viewed as a scourge
Matt Kenyon illustration on the working class
'Working-class people care more about their friends, families and communities – they’re just ­fundamentally nicer.' Illustration by Matt Kenyon

"What I can't understand is, why aren't people rioting in the streets?" I hear this, now and then, from people of wealthy and powerful backgrounds. There is a kind of incredulity. "After all," the subtext seems to read, "we scream bloody murder when anyone so much as threatens our tax shelters; if someone were to go after my access to food or shelter, I'd sure as hell be burning banks and storming parliament. What's wrong with these people?"

It's a good question. One would think a government that has inflicted such suffering on those with the least resources to resist, without even turning the economy around, would have been at risk of political suicide. Instead, the basic logic of austerity has been accepted by almost everyone. Why? Why do politicians promising continued suffering win any working-class acquiescence, let alone support, at all?

I think the very incredulity with which I began provides a partial answer. Working-class people may be, as we're ceaselessly reminded, less meticulous about matters of law and propriety than their "betters", but they're also much less self-obsessed. They care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they're just fundamentally nicer.

To some degree this seems to reflect a universal sociological law. Feminists have long since pointed out that those on the bottom of any unequal social arrangement tend to think about, and therefore care about, those on top more than those on top think about, or care about, them. Women everywhere tend to think and know more about men's lives than men do about women, just as black people know more about white people's, employees about employers', and the poor about the rich.

And humans being the empathetic creatures that they are, knowledge leads to compassion. The rich and powerful, meanwhile, can remain oblivious and uncaring, because they can afford to. Numerous psychological studies have recently confirmed this. Those born to working-class families invariably score far better at tests of gauging others' feelings than scions of the rich, or professional classes. In a way it's hardly surprising. After all, this is what being "powerful" is largely about: not having to pay a lot of attention to what those around one are thinking and feeling. The powerful employ others to do that for them.

And who do they employ? Mainly children of the working classes. Here I believe we tend to be so blinded by an obsession with (dare I say, romanticisation of?) factory labour as our paradigm for "real work" that we have forgotten what most human labour actually consists of.

Even in the days of Karl Marx or Charles Dickens, working-class neighbourhoods housed far more maids, bootblacks, dustmen, cooks, nurses, cabbies, schoolteachers, prostitutes and costermongers than employees in coal mines, textile mills or iron foundries. All the more so today. What we think of as archetypally women's work – looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs, explaining, reassuring, anticipating what the boss wants or is thinking, not to mention caring for, monitoring, and maintaining plants, animals, machines, and other objects – accounts for a far greater proportion of what working-class people do when they're working than hammering, carving, hoisting, or harvesting things.

This is true not only because most working-class people are women (since most people in general are women), but because we have a skewed view even of what men do. As striking tube workers recently had to explain to indignant commuters, "ticket takers" don't in fact spend most of their time taking tickets: they spend most of their time explaining things, fixing things, finding lost children, and taking care of the old, sick and confused.

If you think about it, is this not what life is basically about? Human beings are projects of mutual creation. Most of the work we do is on each other. The working classes just do a disproportionate share. They are the caring classes, and always have been. It is just the incessant demonisation directed at the poor by those who benefit from their caring labour that makes it difficult, in a public forum such as this, to acknowledge it.

As the child of a working-class family, I can attest this is what we were actually proud of. We were constantly being told that work is a virtue in itself – it shapes character or somesuch – but nobody believed that. Most of us felt work was best avoided, that is, unless it benefited others. But of work that did, whether it meant building bridges or emptying bedpans, you could be rightly proud. And there was something else we were definitely proud of: that we were the kind of people who took care of each other. That's what set us apart from the rich who, as far as most of us could make out, could half the time barely bring themselves to care about their own children.

There is a reason why the ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity. Yet this is precisely the rope from which that class is currently suspended. There was a time when caring for one's community could mean fighting for the working class itself. Back in those days we used to talk about "social progress". Today we are seeing the effects of a relentless war against the very idea of working-class politics or working-class community. That has left most working people with little way to express that care except to direct it towards some manufactured abstraction: "our grandchildren"; "the nation"; whether through jingoist patriotism or appeals to collective sacrifice.

As a result everything is thrown into reverse. Generations of political manipulation have finally turned that sense of solidarity into a scourge. Our caring has been weaponised against us. And so it is likely to remain until the left, which claims to speak for labourers, begins to think seriously and strategically about what most labour actually consists of, and what those who engage in it actually think is virtuous about it

Friday, March 28, 2014

Oculus, Virtual Reality and Why Books Must Win the Battle for Our Eyesight   
Posted: 28/03/2014 13:19

The bookshop Waterstones tweeted a joke yesterday in which Mark Zuckerberg went into their shop on Oxford Street:
'What's this?' he said, holding up a book. 'It's a book,' I replied.
He looked at it for five minutes before asking what it does. 'Well,' I said. 'You look at it and it kind of shows you another reality.'
His eyes widened, his voice trembled with excitement. 'Like virtual reality?' 'Well, sort of..' I said. 'EIGHT BILLION POUNDS!' he screamed.
He threw a £10 note at the till and ran out of the store laughing nervously, like someone who's been tickled for just a bit too long.

The joke, if your head has been in a bucket the last few days, centres on Facebook's purchase of Oculus VR - a virtual reality start-up that, even though it has yet to release a single product, found itself bought for billions of dollars.
Nobody quite knows what Facebook plan on doing with Oculus, or whether we'll soon be able to walk through our Facebook timelines like they were real roads, traversing food photos and hopping over emotionally charged videos that promise that WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WILL AMAZE YOU. What is certain is that there is a huge war for our eyes going on. With Google's Glass, Sony's Project Morpheus - among others - we are in the beginning stages of a war where our field of vision is the battlefield itself.

This was in my mind yesterday as I was reading What the Dormouse Said - John Markoff's history of 60s counterculture and its impact on the birth of Silicon Valley - for research for a new book I'm writing.

In it, Markoff describes some of the very earliest computer games which, let alone virtual reality 3D immersive environments, hardly had any pictures at all and were based almost entirely on text:


As Markoff relates, InfoCom, one of the most successful distributors of these text-based computer games had a strap-line for their ads in the 1980s:
The Best Graphics Are In Your Head
Reading this it struck me that the coming world of virtual reality and the ocular land-grab we are heading into present some dangers. There are perhaps risks to our optic health staring into mini screens for hours, or even a chance that we'll become a more obese race. There are deeper issues still: currently there are so many worries about how distracted by our phones we are - and here we are moving towards a technology that actively blocks out any other sights and makes us undistractable from our screens, signifying a final victory of the virtual over reality.

But what made me more concerned as I thought about these moves towards immersive environments is what they might do to our imaginations.

In the text-based games the descriptions of the environment were basic. They left a lot of work for the mind to do. We have to fill in the swathes of black screen-space with our own constantly-refreshing mental pictures as beasts approach and fights ensue. This work of imagination turns out to be important because it is one of the core ways that we develop empathy.
 In a short text-based game like this we don't get very far, but in reading a highly involved novel we are engaging with a tiny and brilliant machine for producing huge amounts of empathetic feeling. This isn't just literary flim-flam - this is scientifically proven. As the study concludes:
'Reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education.'

But aren't video games sorts of stories too? Like films are? Yes, but they don't function in the same way. As Heather Chaplin, a writer on gaming culture, put it in an interview for The Believer:
'Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they're not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telepathing something about the future, maybe that tells us something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.'

Why is this? My hunch is that the answer goes to the heart of this battle over our eyesight.
With a novel, our minds are still required to do a great deal of visual work. There are cues on the page, but they are incomplete. While we read with our external eyes, it is our inner eye that does this work of inner-vision. In other words, novels require a huge amount of imagination, or inner image creation. And this applies across the senses. Using our eyes we pick up textual clues about smells, sounds, sights, heat, taste and, most importantly, complex inner feelings.

In a video game the whole point is that the visual work is being done, and in an immersive VR environment full information is being provided to our external senses - meaning that the inner eye, the inner work of imagination, is dispensed with. When this happens, the studies are telling us, empathy suffers.

Facebook have not spent billions on a company that makes video goggles because they think it'll be a laugh to try them. They have spent the money because they believe that they will get the money back. The battle for our undistracted eyesight is a battle to keep our eyes on ads, on the monetization of our field of vision. Haven't you ever thought it odd: novels don't contain ads. Pages and pages totally ad free...

What then should we do? Quite simply, as the battle for our eyeline begins, we need to commit to reading. Reading more and wider and deeper and longer. Make no mistake: this battle will be hard fought and it will be hard to resist. But, if we are to see kindness and generosity and just human interaction flourish, we need to keep resisting and keep reading.

In the ancient world, and in some cultures still, there was a priestly caste of those called seers. In a world where all could see, here were people who could really see. These see-rs were elevated not for the powers of their external sight, but for their insights, for the wisdom of their inner-eye.

Those of us who continue to read may well be designated as ancient and old fashioned. But, make no mistake, in an Oculist world, it is the seers, the readers, those who continue to exercise their inner lives, who will be most needed.

“Go forth!” A sermon of following

Inhabitatio Dei

(Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-4,15-17; John 3:1-17)
Preached on 3/16/14 at COSK in Portland, Oregon
“Go forth!” We could say, and we would be right to do so, that this is the first call to the Gospel recorded in the Scriptures. Abraham, the father of faith is called by God to go. Abandon what is known to you, depart from the familiar, the secure, the solid, the sensible, the self-evident, and go. The call of the Gospel, when it comes to Abraham, begins, as the Gospel must always begin, with a break. Just as we heard a few weeks ago from Jesus in the sermon on the mount, the Gospel always begins with a rupture, a radical disruption: “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” These words come to Abraham in Genesis no less than they came to the disciples from Jesus, no less than they come to us again and again in the course of our lives, which so easily slip back into the pattern of this world, into “the way things” are, or what our Gospel reading would call “that which is born of the flesh.”
It is this radical break, this calling to abandon all that has come before for the sake of receiving something new, something that, as far as we know does not yet exist, that pervades Jesus’s dialogue with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading.
Nicodemus is interested in Jesus, but he is interested in him as someone who can fit within Israel and its teachers as it stands. He, “the teacher of Israel” stands in utter need of redemption, of new birth into a new life, and a whole new community, the community called forth by the Gospel of the kingdom. He is a secret admirer of Jesus and John is careful to portray him as cowardly, inadequate, and in need of redemption through confession of Jesus and new birth.
For Jesus has not come to offer something that “fits”, something that can be “added” to things as they are in this world. He has come to bring and proclaim a different reality, a reality that calls into question all of our present arrangements, all things that are most natural to us. Jesus presents an entirely new reality into which people are invited and in which they are offered eternal life, which is being brought into the love of God, the love that is so radical, so deep, so universal that God sends God’s own self into the world in the form of the Son. What Jesus proclaims and what Jesus brings is as strange and astonishing and hard to understand as grown people being “born again”. What might some thing like this mean if not the introduction of something utterly miraculous, utterly new, something that calls all that has come before into question?
The reality Jesus offers does not “fit within” any of the existing realities, rather it explodes them and transcends them. It doesn’t fit within “natural Israel” and the only way those belonging to Israel or the nations can participate in it is through hearing Jesus’s word, trusting it and being given over to it. Jesus represents a total break with natural divisions and loyalties. He comes from above, from God and introduces a new reality into the world which interrupts the old order and rearranges people into a new form of life that cannot be readily incorporated into old structures of this world.
The abandonment of all that is most natural! That is what the Gospel of God proclaims ever and again.
And this call to go forth, to leave behind what is most fitting, most natural, most reasonable comes, not just to Abraham, not just to the disciples, not just to us, but also to the one who issues the call himself. The one who brings the Gospel also subjects himself to the demands of the Gospel, indeed we probably ought to say, that he alone has truly met the demands of the Gospel with full obedience and total trust. Abraham’s trust in the one who called him was utterly fragile and at times fell apart. He may have once believed that God would make a nation from his offspring, but that belief certainly faltered in the face of the impossible obstacle that was Sarah’s barrenness. Likewise the Peter may have trusted Jesus enough to step out of a boat into the water of a storm, might have loved him enough to follow after him even when he was arrested and dragged into court, but that trust and that love fell apart in denials and curses when his own safety was on the line.
No indeed, even amidst the cloud of witnesses, there is ultimately one true witness to the call of the Gospel of God. And this witness is Jesus. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from exaltation to humiliation, from life to death in obedience to the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom of life and liberation for all. The call “Go forth from your country, and from your father’s house, to the place I will show you” comes fully, truly, and ultimately to Jesus and only derivatively does it come to Abraham, the disciples, or us.
It comes to us because it has come to Jesus. The call to ever again be shaken up, called on, to go forth into the unknown comes to us because Jesus continues to come to us. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from safety to death on a cross continues to come to us, and to go on ahead of us: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
The call to go forth, to be shaken up by the Gospel is not a one time event, not moment of conversion, but an ever-recurring form of life to which we are called: the life of repentance. The God who calls Abraham to go forth from his father’s house into the land he will be given is also called to leave that land and go down to Egypt, trusting that God will still be faithful. The disciple who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who is called the rock upon whom the church will be built, is called to turn again from denials and strengthen his brothers.
And this is truly where we can falter, where we can become like Nicodemus or worse. This is where we can blindly come to believe that we are being faithful when in fact we are simply living “according to the flesh.” When we assume that the moment of crisis and calling is behind us, that we are squarely on the path, that everything is coming together and we are on the right track. This is where we are most vulnerable to forgetting that the Gospel remains alien to us until the kingdom of God is all in all.
The call to go forth, to trust and believe that God is bring an altogether new reality upon us, this call does not simply come, but continually circles back until all is accomplished. It circles back upon us precisely when we think we are getting it right, when we are about to receive the promise, it is then that we are called to once again put it all at risk in trust that God knows and is really up to something greater. Abraham follows God’s call to the land, and then back out again in the time of famine. So also with Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. So also with the disciples, the apostles, and with us.
But before this was so with these witnesses, it was so with Jesus. With the one whose whole life in this world was a going-forth, a giving-up, a letting-go. At every point in Jesus’s life there were an array of non-risk option before him, as we saw in our reflections on the temptation story last week. “There are other ways this can go” — that is the call of this age, the call of Satan, the call of the wisdom “according to the flesh.”
Jesus is the one who has subjected himself full to this ever-recurring call of God to go forth into uncertainty, to put at risk, rather than to make secure, to give up, rather than to seize, to trust rather than to be suspicious. And this must, ever and again remain the call of the Gospel in this world, for we live after and before the promised end, the coming kingdom of life and liberation. Our lives are lived at the point of confrontation and conflict this present evil age, and the age to come, between life according to the flesh, and life according to the Spirit, between crucifixion and resurrection. In a world torn apart by the war between powers of death and the power of love the call of the Gospel will always and ever be the call of “Go forth!”
For we serve a God who has come forth to us and dragged us into life. We serve a God who has come to us in the world of power and and death in the form of a servant. We serve a God who believed before we ever knew there was a way out or the possibility of hope. For it was true about Jesus before it was true about Abraham, or about the disciples, or about us that  he believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
And so while we continue to live on, struggling together in this little local body to discern how to follow the call of the Gospel in this time and place, in insignificant, statistically unimportant, little ways let us remember yet again today, that the call of the Gospel remains the call of “Go forth!” That the direction of God’s movement in the world is forward and downward, into places where we would not wish to go. That this call will never be over until all has become resurrection.
And let us also remember that we follow a God who does not merely call, but has lived this call for us in Jesus. That the God who calls us to “Go forth!” is the God who has come forth to us, lived our life, died our death, and promises us a share in a life we have no right to claim. Let us remember that we can trust the God who calls us to go forth into uncertainty and doubt, not once, but ever and again, right we want it least — just as Jesus trusted amidst cries of abandonment and the sweating of blood before the cross. For if Jesus’s whole life could be given over to this risk of trust in this God, then the life of risk, of going forth into the uncertain, even into death, is not too good for us who would follow after him. For we serve a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

my spot on editorial on a movie I haven’t seen (or, OMG “NOAH” GETS THE BIBLE WRONG!!)


I’m sure I’ll see Noah soon enough. Maybe when it comes out on video.

I’m sure I’ll like parts of it and not like other parts.

And I am absolutely sure it will get the biblical very, very wrong.

And I don’t care.
  1. Didn’t we just go through all this?
  2. I feel I should be getting worked up about other things.
  3. I am growing weary of “I strongly disagree with you” being equated with the “Gospel is at stake” culture-war-dive-off-a-cliff vibe.
  4. Any depiction of the typically brief, “gapped,” laconic episodes of the Old Testament absolutely has to take serious liberties in adding to and reinterpreting what is written.
  5. For generations of children’s Sunday School classes and Vacation Bible Schools, conservative Christians have already done a fine job of getting the Noah story wrong, so to get upset now strikes me as a stunning lack of self-awareness.
If I may elaborate on that last point.

In our bedroom, we have hanging–actually, used to have hanging–a wood carving of the ark scene, complete with cute animals and a rainbow. The caption, which reflects perfectly how the flood story is often spun, reads, “God’s love never fails.”

I’m completely down with that idea, but I certainly don’t get that from the flood story.

What I do get, and which I suggest as an alternate caption, is, “God’s love never fails (for Noah and his family).”

Or, “We get no further than the 6th chapter of the Bible, and God has already had it with humanity enough to drown every living thing on earth and start over, which, we realize might strike some of us as a bit over the top.”

Or better: “Ancient Israelites, living in a world of already very ancient stories of a catastrophic deluge (likely occurring around 2900 BCE) that left ancient peoples scrambling for answers about why the gods would do such a thing, adapted that story to say something of theological significance for them by way of contrast with these other ancient stories. This is not to suggest, however, that the entire earth was actually, geologically, in space and time covered with water, nor does it even suggest that this story give us permanent, let alone primary, information about of God’s ‘character.’ But it does suggest that this story had some significant religious value for its writers, and we ought to try to understand what that might be rather than capturing the story in a misleading slogan that will set up our children for a faith crisis once they get old enough to read the story for themselves or watch The History Channel and learn about the other ancient flood stories or NOVA and learn about geology and the age of the earth.”

But that last one wouldn’t fit on the wood carving. It wouldn’t sell very well to the demographic, either.

OK, I’m not painting the entire picture here.

The story of Noah has more theological substance than what any of my alternate captions suggests–although the last caption is, I think, the beginning of serious and rewarding theological reflection.
I’m just saying that whatever the movie does with the story–even if it gets it 100% wrong and winds up being utter nonsense–those who “take the Bible seriously” often don’t do much better.

And at any rate, the unwashed masses who see this movie are not going to be “confused” about God from seeing it. It’s a movie. They are likely going to forget it by the time they unlock the car doors. Getting the Noah story wrong isn’t a lost opportunity to be that crucial magic experience that maneuvers people into church.

Actually, getting the Noah story right might be more confusing for unchurched or skeptical people.
“Thanks for coming to our Bible study. How’d you like the story of Noah and the flood?”
“OK, I guess.”
“What to come to church now?
“Absolutely not.”

Now that I think of it, I’d rather the movie take serious liberties with the biblical story. I might have less explaining to do.

The Gospel isn’t at stake when a movie comes out. It may be more at stake when people watch Christians get frantic, as if the Christian faith is such a fragile thing that a movie threatens its integrity. If the Gospel is at stake, it may be more because of how some Christians react

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Book We Read That Also Reads Us
A Conversation about the Psalms with Dr. John Goldingay


"If you open to the middle of the Bible, you'll probably be in Psalms."
"The Psalms are like the worship music of the Old Testament."

Those two sentences summed up my (Jesse’s) knowledge of the Psalms for the first twenty years of my life. I memorized Psalm 23 as a kid, and I knew some of the "Greatest Hits" like Psalm 8 and Psalm 139, but for the most part, they remained a mystery.
Some exploded with happiness and thanksgiving, others with sadness and anger, and many of them had images and words I did not understand. 

Maybe you can relate.

But as it turns out, we can understand and experience the Book of Psalms as a wonderful, intricate blessing once we have a little training, and there are few persons better suited for that task than Fuller Seminary's John Goldingay. Dr. Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller, and has published extensively on the Old Testament in general and Psalms in particular.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Goldingay about the Book of Psalms and how we might mine them in our youth ministries for the treasures they offer. Here are some of his insights:

What is the Book of Psalms, and why is it in the Bible?

One of my starting points for understanding the significance of the Psalms is what Paul says about being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians. In Ephesians 5:18-20 he writes, Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, in Ephesians 6:18, Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 
For Paul, being filled with the Spirit is going to issue in praise, and in thanksgiving, and in prayer. In the course of doing that, you're going to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. He's not just talking about The Psalms. One can see in the New Testament how people's praises are psalm-like; for instance, Mary in the first chapter of Luke. But when Paul starts by saying "speak to one another…", he's at least including the Psalms that we've got in the Book of Psalms, and his assumption as a Jew that that would be the case fits with the nature of the Book of Psalms in itself. That is, the Book of Psalms is in scripture to tell people how to pray and praise. It doesn't work on the assumption that everybody knows that instinctively. It works on the assumption that we need to be taught how to pray and praise.

One of the indications of that in the Book of Psalms itself is the very fact that it is divided into five books. In English translations, it starts with Book 1, and at the beginning of 42 it says Book 2, and at the end of 73 it says Book 3, and so on. What does that make you think of? It makes you think of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch. So, there are five books that tell us about how God created the world and how God got involved with Israel, and what life ought to be like in light of what God has done for God’s people. And there are also five books that model for you what praise and prayer are like.
It's interesting and significant that they don't tell you how to be involved in praise and prayer by giving you a list of principles. What they do is give you a collection of 150 examples of the things you can say to God. That's the way to go about teaching them. The Psalms are there to enable Israelites, and now Christians, to know how to go about praise and prayer. As we want to be able to help people to learn to praise and pray, the model the Psalms suggest is that we show people how to praise and pray by praising and praying, and drawing others into it.

Some psalms seem really joyful, others sad and/or angry, and still others a mix of emotions. How would you explain the differences to a teenager?

Now I would have thought that teenagers are the last people who need the differences explained to them! Teenagers know better than anybody how to move between those kinds of feelings. They are probably less inhibited about doing so than grown-ups. Moving between these emotions is part of being human, both as a teenager and an adult. There will be times when you're joyful, times when you're sad or angry, and times when you're a bit mixed up about things.
The great thing about the Psalms is that they invite us to share those feelings with God. In fact, they set before us several examples of things you might want to say to God along those lines. I sometimes categorize them in three sorts of ways.

1. One is a psalm in which we say to God, "You're great! You're great!”
2. Another in which we say, HEEELP!!!

3. And another in which we say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Those three ways of talking to God are the ones that dominate probably something like 135 out of the 150. We're spending some of the time in praise of who God is, the great things that God did for his people, and the great person that God is. 

Then, much of the time, what we experience doesn't match that.
We find ourselves going through an experience that shatters the kind of assumptions we've been taught, or acquired, about the kind of person God is— God's power, God's faithfulness, and so on. There are scores of psalms that express sadness and anger about how things are. Both kinds of psalms are there, and they're interwoven.

You might have thought that you'd get fifty psalms of praise, then fifty psalms of protest, and then fifty psalms of thanksgiving. It doesn't work like that. They are all mixed up, which is neat in itself, because life is like that. So there are these many psalms that protest the way things are not working out the way you would have thought, given what you know about God.
And then there are the psalms that come from the other side of that experience, where God has acted in the way you pressed God to do; or where you've come to see things in a different way. Even though the situation hasn't changed, you have. One way or another, you come out the other side, able to say again that God is great, God is powerful, God is faithful, and so on. But now you're able to give thanks to God, and it's praise again.

The Psalms themselves are as often addressing other people as addressing God. What they're doing is urging other people to join in praise, and not least urging other people to join in praise for what God did for me last week. Because what God did for me last week is important for everybody else. It builds up everybody else's faith.
Based on the Psalms, what is okay to say to God, and what is not okay? What are some helpful examples of honest communication from scripture?

As far as I can tell, you can say anything to God!
Now, it's a kind of strange thing that in the Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, people don't address God as “Father” the way that we do. But you can tell from the Psalms that they have a child's understanding about the way in which you can come to God. You can come to God and batter on God's chest in a way that a child does.

Now, maybe they don't talk about God as “Father” because it was too cheap and easy, and many other cultures in that time assumed that their god was “Father.” But they evidently related to God as father. Now as a father, I hope it's the case that my kids could have said anything to me. And the Psalms assume that it's like that with God.
Now, the fact that you beat on the chest of God doesn't mean that eventually, sometimes, God may answer back. A great thing about the story of Job is that Job beats on God’s chest for ages and ages, and eventually God answers back. Job perhaps slightly wishes he hadn't said some of those things, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a real relationship. Real things go on between Job and God. When we do speak to God like that, we risk hearing back from God, but that's great because there's reality there about a relationship! Nobody has to mince words. We don't have to mince words with God, and God doesn't have to mince words with us. So I don't think there's anything that you can't say to God. But when you speak to God, you may find there are no limits to what God may say back! 

You once wrote, “As we read the Psalms, they read us.” What do you mean by that?

In a number of the Psalms, one can't be quite sure what the backstory is behind the words. No matter how hard you try to understand it, you still can't get to the answer. It’s in connection with that aspect of the psalms that I say the Psalms read us. If the text can be read in two sorts of ways – for instance, is the fact that things have gone wrong in my life my fault because I've sinned, or is it something totally inexplicable, and it's simply God's fault? – the Psalms won't tell the answer to that question. The psalm you’re reading tests you. It works as the Word of God on you, by the fact of you having to examine yourself, and ask the question, If I were to say that psalm, what would I mean?
What the writer of the psalm meant, and the background of the psalmist's life, are irrelevant to the question, “What's going on in your life that means you need to pray one way or the other way?" That’s what I mean when I talk about the Psalms reading us. They reveal what’s going on in our hearts and minds.

An example is Psalm 139 that talks about God having access to us anywhere, and nowhere we go will we be out of God's reach. Is that good news or bad news? The psalm doesn't make it clear. You have to ask yourself, “Do I think that's good news or bad news for me right now, and why?” 
What are some ways that leaders can help young people connect with God through the Psalms? 

In any psalm, there are things you don't quite know the meaning of, but that’s okay. A problem for pastors is the fear to utter the words, “I don't know.” Many pastors and leaders think they ought to have the answer to every question.
I don't think it's that difficult to understand nine verses out of ten in the Psalms, and if there's one verse you don't understand, that’s okay, we don't know the answer to that, that in itself says something. One of the most important things I say to students when they ask a question is, "Oh, I don't know the answer to that, I'll go and look it up and try to find out, and tell you next week." 

If leaders can help young people read the Psalms in a way that allows the Psalms to read us and what we are going through, that is a great place to start. Also, if you want to know how to pray for other people, especially for justice, psalms of protest are the answer. We don't just pray them for ourselves. We pray them for other people.
Action Points

1.    Choose some verses from the Psalms and ask students to identify a time when those verses may have described their feelings. For instance, Psalm 59:17 (I will sing praises to you, my strength, because God is my stronghold, my loving God) might remind them of an answered prayer, or a big “aha” moment on a missions project or at a camp. Psalm 88:9 (My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering. I’ve been calling out to you every day, LORD—I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!) might describe a time of loss or disappointment.

2.    Invite students to start reading through a few psalms and then to stop once they find a verse that describes something in their lives right now. You might have students start with different psalms, or have everyone read the same ones.

3.    As a leader, find a psalm that describes you right now, or might have described a significant moment in your life, and then share the psalm and why it connected with you. That will model for students how you want them to engage the Psalms.

4.    Try to tease out any taboo or hesitance your students might feel about speaking from the heart to God. Questions like, “When have you had words you wanted to say to God but didn’t say them?” or “What words aren’t okay to use with God?” might help get the discussion started. Then look to the psalms of lament to find examples of using bold language with God.

5.    Commit as a group to reading a particular psalm throughout the week, and then let that kick off discussion next week. This might work especially well in small groups.

6.    Encourage students to write an original psalm. Many of the Psalms leave out specific names and details, and focus instead on the feelings and experience of the author or on the character and works of God. A modern day psalm might start something like, “Today you reminded me how much you sacrificed for us, because you love us,” or “I prayed to you every day this week and asked for help, but you have been silent.”