American Patriot's Bible: The Trailer

I'm uneasy in general about the specialty Bible trend in Christian publishing. This extends even to specialty Bibles I might be inclined to agree with - for example the Green Bible, which prints in green ink some or all of the 1,000 passages in the Bible that refer to God's care for creation, and which includes essays from writers and leaders I admire: Archbishop Tutu, N.T. Wright, and Wendell Berry.

But this new American Patriot's Bible is too much. Larry Shallenberger, in his post earlier this month, rightly suggested the idolatry of this book (for let's not call it a "Bible"). The purpose of the book is not to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, nor to equip us for every good work; its purpose is to promote the myth of American exceptionalism and justify deeds (both past and present) that are hateful to God.

The publisher, Thomas Nelson, has released a couple "trailers" for the American Patriot's Bible. (I am frankly - and perhaps naively - disappointed in Thomas Nelson, which has published at least four books we like here at the Burnside Writers Collective.) In addition to the video posted above, you can watch a nine minute promo here. "For the first time ever," intones the narrator, "the history of America’s Christian heritage and the Holy Bible are woven together in a single volume." You can also read a response by the general editor of the American Patriot's Bible, Richard G. Lee, to Greg Boyd's scathing two-part review on the Out of Ur blog.

I think the BWC should do something to lay bare the sham(e) of the American Patriot's Bible. Some things I've been considering: a series of posts weaving together the Bible and the history of some other country: Canada? Sweden? the Federated States of Micronesia? We could also take a few of the most perverse conflations of scripture and American history and refute them historically, theologically. Or we could just post a series of short excerpts from the book and let the blasphemy speak for itself.

A quick confession: My first response to public injustices by the American church is almost always public criticism. I want to use the media - this blog, the main BWC site, my own blog, writing for other publications - to excoriate Christian institutions, though not individual brothers and sisters, of course.

I recently heard about a megachurch in Florida that instituted new policies for its worship team. The policies require worship team members to wear the same color, forbid them from moving around on stage or lifting up their hands, and disallow the participation of anyone who is overweight. When I heard this, I was enraged. I started writing. I was going to call out the church by name. I said things like "I am going to crush them in print." But then I was reminded by people I trust that public criticism (even of public injustice) may not be the correct way to handle the situation, that scripture specifies a private confrontation among believers, at least at first. I deleted the post, dissatisfied.

Is it possible that the initital confrontation of the American Patriot's Bible should also be private? What does a private confrontation even look like when we are dealing with institutions? What do you think is the appropriate response - as BWC and as individual believers?

A Jerk's a Jerk

I was chatting with Burnside contributor Diane Nienhuis this morning. As occasionally will happen, Diane brought up concerns over gender equality at Burnside, that we should have more female writers.

That's a topic for another day. I told Diane she should write an article about it, and she assured me she'd started one many times. Then Diane said something I've heard before: "If a man gets fired up about something, it's okay, but if a woman does, then she's an angry bitch."

I wholeheartedly disagree, and I told her so. I think claiming a double standard here is a trite cliche.

She said we should post it on the blog and ask the readers, so that's what I'm doing.

Here's my side: a jerk is a jerk. If you're a man who bullies others to get his way and treats others as inferior, then you're a @$$hole. If you're a woman who bullies others to get her way and treats others as inferior, you're a bitch. In my life, I don't want to deal with you either way.

There's this idea that our society somehow likes @$$holes! You know why Donald Trump had a hit TV show? You know everyone wants to see Kobe Bryant lose in the NBA Finals? It's because we can't stand these people, and we want to seem them fail. These people aren't famous because of how respected they are...they're famous because the world needs villains. It makes the good guys that much better.

Men are, to some extent, expected to be jerks more than women are. Our culture expects women to exhibit the finer qualities of humanity: kindness, empathy, caring. We expect men to be drink Monster energy drinks, read Maxim and act like idiots.

Do you see the problem there? It's not what we call women when they participate in the female equivalent of those endeavors...it's the way men are expected to act. Is the answer to change the standard so women are expected to act like idiots?

Anyway, let me know if I'm off here. I just don't see the double standard, but that's probably because I have a penis, and can therefore never understand the plight of modern women.


Meditations: The Problem with Cynicism

If attitudes were beverages then cynicism would be my energy drink. Nothing gives me a buzz like the false sense of empowerment that comes with churning out the gallows humor to get through a tough patch. I've been sarcastic as long as I can remember, or since I held a Steve Taylor 45 in my adolescent hands, whichever came first. But cynicism, that didn't come until my adult life.

Fresh out of college, I found a job at a mental health treatment center for children and adolescents. I grew up living a sheltered life; that Steve Taylor album caused hand wringing and a few literal tears with my mom. So I was unprepared to be submerged in the world filled with children and teens that were sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. Many of the children I worked with wrestled to understand the personality disorders and other diagnoses that controlled their moods and prevented them from living in normal homes. I got to meet their parents and observed how they too were broken by poverty and family pain. I watched large clumsy social service agencies attempt to help these struggling families, only to create as much hurt as they did help.

It was too much to process, until I discovered the underrated power of cynicism. I learned to label the horrors I was confronted with each day. I provided the running commentary through every treatment meeting and point out the hopelessness of the situations we were trying to improve with some dry humor. In the beginning, God let Adam share in his creativity by naming the animals. God left a small, human-sized piece of chaos for Adam to practice on. I think I was like Adam, but all wrong. I named the "beasts" in my work place, not to be creative, or to expel chaos, but to keep the these situations from touching me on an emotional level.

I've been thinking about Zarchariah's faithless response to Gabriel when he announced that God heard his prayers. Israel's salvation was coming soon. The priest's immediate response was a looping eye roll. I wonder if Zachariah had spent his life "naming his beasts" also. He had several. He was old. He served in a dirt-village, separated from the networking and the power that came with being a priest in Jerusalem. He spent his entire life living in an occupied and oppressed nation. He and his wife were barren. The angel was describing a possibility that didn't fit inside the world of realities that Zachariah had named. His only possible response was rejection.

The Apostle Paul calls Jesus the New Adam. I know this name of Jesus is used in scripture to explain how sin can enter and exit this world through the work of just one person. But I'd like to suggest an additional, more personal, use for this title.

If I could learn to stop naming my realities and my beasts, then my savior, the New Adam, might just start doing it for me. I would hear how he describes my challenges and then I could partner with him to replace Chaos with Kingdom.


Something I've Been Working On

I'm excited about this. I thought I'd share.

A year ago, Don Miller, Santino Stoner (the writer and director behind Nooma), a descendant of Projekt Sonnenkinder, and myself got together and wrote a short film series. Or television show. Or something.

I haven't been able to talk about it much, and I still generally lean in the direction of keeping my mouth shut since nothing has been finalized, but here's some information about it. It includes a brief clip of the first episode. Nothing you see there is final, and I didn't write any of the words you'll actually hear, but I was in the room! (You can tell by the photo above. I'm the one in the Army shirt, which is fairly typical of almost any photo I take.)

Honestly...and I know I'm biased...it's a great story. I can't tell you how enjoyable it is to sit in a room with minds like Don and Sonny and Dave Wenzel and watch a story unfold, then get refolded, then unfolded again. I hope it's a story that gets told.

In the meantime, marvel at the brilliant work of Dot+Cross! Visit Halogen TV and send them emails saying they'd be insane not to pick up our show! Email your local cable companies and yell, "I WANT HALOGEN!"

More Than Enough

"It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is has been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place."
- Madeleine L'Engle, Walking On Water

In the current Christian subculture, "more" is the order of the day. Cries like "Isn't there more?" abound in almost every book written and conference attended. "There's got to be more" falls from the lips of many a disgruntled church member and hides in the lines of many of the top 100 love songs to Jesus. Now I understand "holy discontent" and wanting to know more of God; that's not what I'm talking about here. There's a discontent behind this current verbiage that doesn't feel holy at all.  It bothers me, kinda like a burr under the saddle or a bone in the throat. 

I came across Madeleine's words the other day and they stopped me in my boots, literally, because that's what I always wear. It really felt like she was articulating what I was feeling. What if what is is enough? What if the people and places and things of my life, right now, are enough? What if the dis-ease that I feel or experience is because the "enough" of my life has been "disarranged and is crying out to be put in place"?  Mercy, Madeleine, I wish you were still around. 

Her words rang true to me. I'm not talking about NOT seeking out new faces and places and experiences; shucks, I'm a seeker and always have been - a rover, a wanderer/wonderer. Honest seeking coupled with some good old fashioned doubt is a vital part of the life of faith. But the current quest for "more" that I see and hear feels dangerously close to the F-word - yes, that's right - fickle.  It's almost a stance of I'm-not-of-this-world-and-I-really-don't-want-to-be-in-it-either. Which is quite close to I-don't-want-to-do-the-hard-work-required-to-rearrange-things. Which is the kissing cousin to, well, laziness. And there you have it folks - laziness cloaked in the guise of "surely there's more" and when the veil is removed the real words are "surely there's more than my fallen husband and my fallen church and this fallen suburb and these fallen blog writers..."

Madeleine had me at hello, so I kept reading a little further down the page.  She very clearly told me, and now you, just who it is that is desperately needed in this disarranged world. Guess who?  Yep, artists.  But that doesn't mean wearing a raspberry beret or black turtlenecks; no, it means men and women and children and uncles and emergents and regressives and folks who read Burnside and folks who watch reruns of Ironside, yes, all of us, putting our hands to the plow of co-laboring with God in the rearrangement of the world that is. You might even say, "His Kingdom coming and His will being done."

Well, that's enough. 


Mourning a Friend Moving. A Tribute to Will

I'm in the process of grieving the fact that one of my best friends is moving. God brought Will into my life at a time when I needed close friendship more than I realized. Will has quickly become the bull in the well ordered china shop I call my life. The disruption has been an incredible experience.

I'm slowly writing my next book and thought I'd share a snippet from the draft that involves Will.


I became fast friends with Will through a mutual interest in the martial arts. I had earned a black belt in tae kwon do about five years ago and in fair physical shape. However, I stopped training about the time that I had my third child and I started writing books. A pair of full cheeks and a doughy middle was proof that health had fallen of my priority list. Will and his family had recently started attending Grace and I heard Will had a martial arts background. Knowing that I had to get back in shape, I approached Will about possibly working out together. Will agreed.

Our first workout consisted of some light sparring. The goal was to feel out each other’s workout styles of see if training together would be beneficial. I quickly learned that Will had undersold the extent of his training. Will revealed he had been a Marine drill instructor and that he had a background in karate and hand-to-hand combat. Will failed to mention that he had run a martial arts school in South Carolina. He also neglected to reveal that when the UFC began its expansion that they choose Will’s school as one of the first certified to teach their brand of cage fighting. He forgot to mention that he held five black belt. Will's a forgetful guy.

Saying that I was absolutely outclassed and overpowered would be an understatement. Still, Will chose to continue working out with me, and chose to start teaching me his ground game. Throughout the course of our workouts, Will began sharing his spiritual journey.

Will is an avid reader. I’ve only met a handful of people who share his commitment to life-long learning. Will had a deep interest in spirituality and read as much as he could get his hands on regarding Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Quantum Physics, Wicca, Spiritualism, Deism, and Gnosticism.

Will settled on Wicca. He was drawn to the notion that “all paths led to the same center.” He explained a parable from India about six blind men who each stood next to an elephant and each touch a different part of the beast: the ivory tusk, the long trunk, a floppy ear, a stout leg, or the torso. When the blind men compared noted they fell into a sharp disagreement. Will explained that the difference in perspective among the blind men was analogous to religious knowledge. So instead arguing differences, pagans affirm truth in everything. This eclecticism allowed Will to side step that tension between faith and doubt. If Will encountered a pagan myth that didn’t resonate intellectually, Will could simply discard it and find another story that suited him better. This flexibility allowed Will to avoid the uncomfortable work of evaluating whether a belief was true or not. Will’s only task was to decide if the teaching suited his own life. The goal was ergonomics not apologetics.

God had different ideas for Will and began speaking to him. He despised Christianity but he was intimate with it. Will had grown up in a Christian home but rejected the faith after loosing both parents at an early age.The seismic shifts in the real estate industry which predated our current recession were drying up Will’s business. Will had fashioned himself into his own God, but the dried up economy forced Will to realize that he was not in control of his personal universe.

Will returned to his spiritual roots and began reading C.S. Lewis. Will says that he was “becoming a believer” but intellectual doubts were swirling in his head. As Will reacquainted himself with God, he realized that affirming Christianity necessitated a belief that the other religions were not true. Will had exposed himself to so many religious systems, he was certain that even after he “said the magic prayer” that he’d be questioning his decision for the rest of his life. Will wasn’t sure that he could live out an existence where faith and doubt would forever be intertwined. Will did not want a faith that endured in spite of his intellect.

Late one night Will signed onto an online Christian discussion board and typed these words:

“In my heart, I want to believe. But I’m afraid that my intellect won’t allow me. I don’t want to spend my life second guessing myself.”

Someone quickly replied with scripture: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, For it is written, he taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” (1 Cor 3:19).

Will remembers electricity running down his spine and the hairs on his arm standing on end. Will knew that he was being confronted by the truth after a lifetime of rage. Tears came to his eyes. Will knew. He had always known. He just chose to ignore it.

Still, Will could not bring himself to embrace Jesus, not with the lingering doubt. He slept on it.

The next day, Will was filled with the excitement of knowing that God was involved in his story and that God was drawing Will to himself. Still he wasn’t ready to cross the line of faith. He was not ready to embrace the doubt that inevitably accompanies a commitment to someone else. Will wasn’t ready to tell his family that he was about to the convert from being a pagan, hostile to all-things-Christian, to a follower of Jesus. So Will kept his spiritual turmoil to himself.

Evening came and Will interrupted his spiritual wrestling to enjoy Chinese takeout with his family. Dinner ended and his daughter chose a fortune cookie for Will that he keeps in his Bible to this day:

“The heart is wiser than the intellect.”


The Freshman Death Match, Reed 2001

I'm always wanting to write more on this blog, but these days it feels like I have little to say that doesn't have to do with diapers or vacuuming. So, I thought I'd share one of my first experiences with OFCS on Reed's campus. Enjoy.

* * *

From the beginning, Reed's Christian group was different - the evangelical stuff would get you sent off to the lions. It was a new group of people and we needed a new name. When we made an acronym out of an expletive – Oh For Christ’s Sake – I knew I'd like these Christians who weren't afraid to make fun of themselves. Our first “Christian ministry event” was the Freshman Death Match. We gathered around the Commons lawn, where everyone who lived on campus ate and hung out when they weren't slaving away in the library. We brought a mega-fone, Styrofoam, swords, packing tape, and eggs. Don stood on top of the wall separating the tables from the lawn and dared any freshman with enough chutzpah to come out and fight for his or her honor. Given that Reed is a pretty geeky place I figured we'd have a hard time finding macho types. But given the fact that I'd never played the game, I underestimated the impact of Dungeons and Dragons on my classmates. The stick-armed boys came in droves.

We gave them a few minutes to create their armor and protect the raw egg that was taped into their helmets, and let them go at it. Tony blew the whistle and they ran across the lawn Gladiator-style, their swords high in the air, ready to pummel each other. They did Achilles proud. People cheered, jumping up in the air, and pounding fists just like they do at boxing matches. It was a hit. People started saying, “What’s OFCS?” We'd made an impression. We did Jesus proud.

And then, incredibly, fifty people came to Christ on the spot.


The Daredevil Christopher Wright

There are multiple reasons to admire Paste Magazine and I've just found another. Their featured "band of the week" is The Daredevil Christopher Wright. I went to college with these guys, and listened to now lead singer, Jon Sunde, share his new songs at a class picnic in the park. At that time, I just thought he was an overly-confident teen. I sat in the grass and ate my hot dog smugly. But as the years progressed, his nasal, anti-mainstream sound began to win me over. This kid was not just an annoying music major. He might have something.
Weekends in college were spent at small coffee shops listening to the band play their local hits. I caught them last week in Minneapolis at their CD Release Show. Their first full-length album In Deference to a Broken Back was released this past week from Amble Down Records.
The three-man band is known for their hard-to-pin-down style that is only described in terms of whom they are not. They are not like Matchbox 20.
Their album was mixed by Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, and features an array of moods and instruments. My favorite is when second guitarist and back-up vocalist, Jason Sunde, plays his recorder. Not enough bands use the recorder. Nickelback does not play the recorder.
The Daredevil Christopher Wright has also been reviewed by Relevant Magazine and Daytrotter. They are in the midst of planning their album tour which, so far, features midwestern towns.
They've got a cheeky songwriting style that is rife with ironic phrasing and simple delivery. It's the kind of writing that says what they really mean.

"The teeth in your mouth
are crooked like your fathers
so you got braces.

And you hope that you won't
pass it on to your kids
they're quite expensive."

Give them a try. I'm pleased as punch with their efforts. They've come a long way, and I'm glad to have been a part of it. Catch them soon before they get too popular and then it's not cool to like them anymore. That's what happened to The Fray. They are not like The Fray.

Part of the Solution: Eat Less Meat

by Sara Sterley

My husband, a 6’7” former college basketball player, likes his meat. He typically indulges my tree hugger tendencies: he composts with the best of them, reuses everything, and even broke his back in our clay-filled backyard a few weeks ago to double the size of our organic garden. But he drew the line several months ago when I started reading about the environmental impact of animal products; there was no way our family was going vegetarian or even “flexitarian,” as I suggested. I used my best debating skills and threw all kinds of statistics at him:

  • According to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions worldwide than all forms of transportation combined. In addition, factory farming also contributes to depletion of water resources and environmental degradation.
  • According to Environmental Defense, if every American replaced one meat meal with a vegetarian meal every week, it would be the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the roads.
  • Recent studies show that vegetarians have fewer cancers and generally live-longer than meat-eaters.
  • It’s a justice issue! We could use some of that grain currently being produced to feed livestock to the more than one billion people living in abject poverty.
  • It’s a creation care issue! The conditions that animals raised in factory farms in the United States endure are certainly not how God intended His creatures to live.

Still, he was not convinced, so I just started researching some vegetarian recipes and making them for dinner. Sneaky, I know, but a little experimenting never hurt anyone. Grant was happily surprised at the new additions to our dinner repertoire and noticed that he had more energy and felt less sluggish when we ate all veggie meals.

I felt better too, both physically and emotionally, knowing that reducing the amount of meat in our diets helps reduce our carbon footprint and keeps our resources from supporting factory farms.

While we enjoyed our meatless meals, we also still wanted to incorporate some meat products in our diets, so I started researching local livestock producers. The advantages of eating meat (and produce, dairy and other products) from local sources are numerous:

  • Knowing where your meat comes creates a more sustainable food economy – farmers are more likely to know their customers and customers are more likely to have a relationship with their farmers, which creates a far more accountable food system than we currently have.
  • It’s just more fun and more responsible knowing where your food comes from. We get our pork from a local farmer who we affectionately call “Grandpa Jay.” He knows the name of our dog and remembers that I like his pork burgers best. You just can’t get that from a plastic encased package at the grocery store.
  • Non-factory farmed meat that is raised in a sustainable way is better for the environment and healthier for us.

We eat less meat now and love experimenting with vegetarian dishes. When we do eat meat, we don’t use as much of it and feel better knowing where it came from before it arrived on our plates. If you ask me, Michael Pollan says it best and most succinctly in his most recent bestseller (and must-read), In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

An Idoltatrous Study Bible?

The Patriot Study Bible seems to have done the unthinkable. They've built a study Bible, not to help unpack the meaning of scripture, but to advance the notion the myth of American excluvism.

Greg Boyd writes a pointed review here.

Boyd calls this study Bible nothing short of idolatrous. Skip on over to the Ur blog and then tell us what you think.


Focus on the Family: Jesus and Gmail

I sometimes joke that the only two things that I am an evangelist for are Jesus and Gmail. Each, to different degrees, has shaped my life for the better, and yes, I realize how sacrilegious that sounds.

Even so, I am much more likely to verbally evangelize for Gmail than I am for Jesus, more likely to accost a stranger and share with them the benefits of folders and filters than I am the word and sacrament.

I wouldn’t say that I believe in Jesus less than Gmail, but I am less likely to peddle Jesus around because I realize the baggage many people (myself included) carry around from the church, which includes past failed conversion attempts.

I didn’t come to Jesus through the 17 years of Christian education I underwent (though I am grateful for it). More than once, I asked many people on “mission” trips to do the very thing I hadn’t yet done – accept Christ (pause to let the hypocrisy set in).

One such trip was one I took to China to teach English through a Christian organization here in the States. I had never lived away from my family, and I was exactly halfway around the world from them back in Michigan. I was the youngest person in my classroom, and I was the teacher – whose job it was to convert them in a very discreet way. It was forced and awkward on my part, and my faith never came up in casual conversation, mostly because I was more interested in their culture and beliefs than I was in sharing mine.

I developed a friendship with one student in particular who was not warm to the idea of Christianity, as her own mother was a recent convert and was not so subtle in her evangelism. I figured her mom pretty much had it taken care of on the soul-saving front, so my relationship with Li Li was no-strings-attached.

One day, we were riding the bus home together and Li Li told me she had a dream and wanted to share it with me. She said that in the dream, she was near starving and she walked through a door into a huge room with only a table in it. An old woman was sitting at the table with her back to the door. As she approached her, her hunger increasing with each step, a huge bowl of rice came into view, sitting in front of the old woman. Li Li said that she tiptoed timidly up, afraid but hungry enough to approach the woman. The woman, Li Li said, turned and said in a kind voice, “Take and eat whatever you can.”

I still get goosebumps when I recount that story, and the irony of her witness to me still a testament to the curve balls the God I am now just getting to know always seems to throw my way.

I am now part of a new faith community here in Denver that has grown significantly in the last year. My pastor says that church planters contact her weekly, mostly well-meaning people from out of town who have heard how unchurched Denver is. They want to know the recipe for evangelizing the heathens of the Mile High.

I have been taking two such "heathen" students of mine to church. The first time they came, one of the girls asked if she could wear her Insane Clown Posse shirts and the other if she could wear her Mohawk “up.” Sure, I said.

They have been going for a few weeks and have been taking communion. One of the girls wants to be baptized. I felt like I should get a gold star of some sort for this feat; no fellow teachers could believe they would step foot in a church.

A couple weeks ago, my pastor asked one of the girls to hold the chalice of communion wine. As I received communion from my student and she said to me, shyly, “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” I was weak in the knees.

Time and again, I am witnessed to when I least expect it. Like Phillip speaking with the Ethiopian Eunuch, I have much to learn from those I might think of as different and wrongly label as outside the fold.

My pastor preached about that text the other week, (I encourage you to read the full text here) with one of the resounding lines reading "I think maybe that we can’t actually know what this Jesus following thing is about unless we too have the stranger show us."

The recipe for good church, as I have experienced it, is less about peddling Christ to others and more allowing others to witness to us, regardless of their standing or position in the Church. Christ – the body resurrected and free for all to take and eat – is all around us. As I was reminded by friends last weekend, it is less “What Would Jesus Do?” and more “What is Jesus already doing?”

I am convinced that most of our models for intentional evangelism are mostly well meaning but eventually at best not fruitful, and at worst harmful. I haven’t exactly figured out how to reconcile all this in my own mind. I mean, both Gmail, and Jesus are good news in my life (the latter, decidedly more so). How do I share that good news with others while allowing them to minister to me at the same time?

And in the meantime, could I get some commission dollars from Google?

Purpose-Driven Centrist On Hope, Optimism, and Community

I apologize for the unintentional hiatus I took. Eight weeks ago I had my third surgery in two years trying to repair damage from dislocating my knee cap. This is the first week I've been walking, still mostly using one crutch, and almost totally limping and struggling to regain my strength. Despite my own struggles my wife had it worse, for she was the sole provider and caregiver for our two small children and me, who couldn't even carry an empty bowl without breaking it. I am amazed at her endurance.

Through this process (I hesitate to say healing process because I've done this twice before), I came upon a roadblock that I haven't dealt with in some time: a deep valley of sadness. You see part of my journey to becoming a centrist is much more than political. Maintaining balance in my life is key. Balance between highs and lows, between emotion and logic, between faith and science, between spontaneity and pragmatism, etc. Leaning one way or the other often blinds me from the big picture. And on the journey to the center, the big picture is key.

In typical depressing fashion, hope escaped me while lying on the couch feeling helpless to do anything for myself or family. Energy for anything that sustained me day-to-day seemed to drain from my soul. I was limping (on crutches) absently through my life. Turning to scripture seemed academic (i.e. like homework), and being in worship felt like being called on in class while unprepared. Inwardly I felt ashamed; outwardly I put on a smile. I was looking down when everyone else seemed to be looking up. Those Bibles verses like "we have our hope in Christ Jesus" and "all things work together for good" became cliche (again?).

A couple weeks ago, Michael J. Fox produced a TV special about optimism, a documentary based around the ideas of his new book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. I figured 'what the heck' and watched it, clearly looking for something to pull me out of my funk. Fox has never really spoken of faith in a religious context in speaking about his life and battle with Parkinson's disease, and I wasn't expecting it in this documentary. But I was impressed with the broad and diverse situations, locations, and people through which he investigated what is the foundation for people optimism. Two particular situations stuck out to me: a co-op dairy farming organization in New York state and the people of Bhutan.

The farmers battled for survival, stuck to a life they've known all of their lives, and banded together with others in their economic and business situation. They took a risk to move away from the survival-of-the-fittest method of farming instead choosing to share the burdens, risks, and rewards together. The country of Bhutan chooses to measure Gross National Happiness over gross domestic product. There's not a single traffic light on any roads, yet still no road rage. The ultimate reasons for this national happiness were simply defined by clear commitments to family, community, and tradition.

Both examples stand on community as the foundation of their optimism and hope for the future. Neither particularly display any clear faith component, though Bhutan's traditions have obvious Buddhist roots. And of all things in this life that I have hoped for and desired, community has been on top. Community balances my individualism, both my success and my failures. Community keeps me grounded. Community frees me from the sins of independence. Community gives me the opportunity to depend on others. Community balances life and faith in ourselves and others.

But where is God or Jesus in all of this? I asked myself this very same question as I was working through this. I don't think it is any coincidence that I was also reading Susan Issacs' book, which may have provided me the only laughter I uttered during my funk. I think it helped to read through someone else's journey of finding God in their struggles to realize I had to answer that question, too. The cliches above would not suffice. There has to be a better example of hope.

No matter the true reason, I continued to go back to worship. In fact, last week we made a special effort to go on Saturday night knowing Sunday my wife was traveling for a much deserved rest and rejuvenation. And through the words of our senior pastor Alf Halvorson, another example of hope was revealed. Our church is looking at through a series of conversation Jesus has with people, as recorded in the gospel of John. This week we looked Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. This happens to be the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. Before digging into the text, Alf points out that while Jesus was traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee, he didn't geographically have to go through Samaria. But he interprets that symbolically fulfilling his own decree that "God so loves the world" Jesus has to go into Samaria so that they, an separated, outcast culture to the Jews, would be included in hearing the good news.

The narrative explains that Jesus converses with this woman at the well around noon, the hottest time of the day. This goes to show just how isolated and disengaged from community this woman is. Through their conversation, Jesus offers her living water so that she need no other water. Not truly understanding, she eagerly wants this so she doesn't have to go to the well again - where her isolation is in plain sight. Through the conversation Jesus reveals things to her he should have no knowledge - that she has had 5 husbands and living with another man. This is, yet, another level of the darkness of isolation and disconnection she must feel - even more so shows that men discarded her repeatedly because at that time only men could initiate a divorce.

What Jesus is offering her is respite from the deep yearning in the soul of everyone for the connection to community and the living God. Think about the balance in that offering. To someone who feels so lonely, so isolated, so disengaged, so worthless a chance to be in tangible relationship with another person who represents and shows God's love - who knows you as who you are - and lets you be yourself - can be so healing. Jesus treats her as real person, gives her worth, and connects her to God. The greater balance is that Jesus also tells her the truth about herself, about her life, about her reality. But he provides the spiritual embrace that her soul may never have felt before, a communal connection with the living God.

I used to think this passage was simply about needing to worship God "in spirit and truth." We hear that all the time, don't we? The Jews and Samaritans battled over the truth of where to worship - who was right and who was wrong about which hill to worship on. There are many similar battles going on in America to this day, and with the same bitter tact we infer those two cultures showed each other. And really, this passage is about spirit and truth, but I've always missed that it is lived out by Jesus to this woman. And if I could be so bold to use a synonym, I say it is about balancing spirituality and reality. This woman was living in the darkness of her reality, knowing the truth of her circumstance: that no one wanted her. And then Jesus showed up and touched her spirit. He brought her back to the center - community with God and with himself as another person, and ultimately re-establishing her with her own community.

This is exactly the re-balancing I needed: a spiritual embrace from my own reality in the form of a communal experience with my God in the presence of the community where I worship and in part through this very BWC community we have here. It's not a quick fix, but rather part of the guide lines on the road helping me back to the center of my life journey.


The Christian Publishing Titanic

I was in Tucson a couple weeks ago, having an early evening beer at a pizza place near U of A with fellow Burnsider Dan Gibson. One of the servers had a Kindle, and we asked if she liked it.

"I love it," she replied. We asked to see it.

It was surprising. We expected a glorified laptop screen, but the print was shockingly clear and clean, like reading a real page.

"I could see owning one," Dan said, a collector of books like I am. I agreed.

Driving home Sunday morning, an Tucson's NPR station featured a piece by a journalist decrying the death of print media. She talked about the hunger of young journalists for fame, to make that Woodward/Bernstein story break. It was a wistful lament for a better time, and it annoyed me.

Not because I'm enjoying the death of print media, but because I'm not worried about the death of journalism. Journalism will change, but it won't disappear. There will still be a public hunger for uncovering corruption and untold stories. In fact, while I don't have stats to back it up, isn't the internet breeding more readers than ever before?

This The Nation piece (sent to me by the prolific Morf Morford) goes into more detail on how the internet revolution is beginning to impact the book publishing industry. The article spells out many of the same warnings music and media faced: lack of innovation, forward-thinking, and underappreciating artists has left the industry unprepared, cautiously fending off the coming end.

That's how mainstream publishing is looking. If you think the future is any brighter for CBA publishers, I've got some property in the suburbs west of Phoenix to sell you.

Christian publishing is notoriously behind the times, unwilling to innovate, and unwilling to publish anything even remotely risky. This is an industry, mind you, that soundly and across the board rejected The Shack for being too theologically controversial. Until it sold 50,000 copies on its own word of mouth, of course. Look what happens when they do take risks: Thomas Nelson takes a chance on a young, unestablished writer with a poor-selling debut, and it becomes a NYT bestseller. Six years later, Blue Like Jazz now carries a "Read with Discernment" warning at Lifeway Christian Bookstores (along with books by Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and The Shack). Heaven forbid Lifeway patrons might read anything not having to do with making their marriage better.

You'd think, with changing media, CBA might be coming around.

It's happening in some ways...there was a rush on BLJ-style memoirs, but that's less about taking risks than trying to ride the coattails of someone else's. Some publishers have opened newer, "hipper" imprints in an attempt to appeal to that weirdo emergent crowd. Unfortunately, they seem to think using crazy new fonts is the epitome of boundary-pushing. At least Chad Gibbs and Susan Isaacs got book deals. That was a step in the right direction. Though if I told you the ridiculous resistance Chad came up against, you'd be slack-jawed.

But what I've been hearing from folks, usually editors at Christian publishing houses, is the opposite is happening. Publishers are curling in on themselves, like frightened turtles. They're relying more and more on bookstores like Lifeway and Family Christian Stores as fearful evangelicals wall off the outside world, worried about the coming liberal-lead apocalypse.

It's not the editors who are at fault, it's the marketing and sales. The editors push boundaries. The accountants and marketing experts shut them down. The editors wring their hands in frustration before finding someone to write another study guide on I Kissed Dating Goodbye (this time focused on middle aged single parents).

There's no way to blame them, really, because Christian retailers are where the sales are right now. The problem is, this is the same disease that's been afflicting American industry for the last decade. Who cares about 10 years from now? This ship is going down, so let's get our money now. It's not even about content. It's about being completely lost in the face of change. Christian retailers and publishers have been selling to Baby Boomers for so long, they have no idea how to deal with X-ers, let alone an entirely post-internet generation.

If there are any Christian publishers out there interested in people, writers and editors, who understand where publishing is headed and aren't afraid to take risks, let me know. I'd gladly point you to a ton of folks itching for a shot.

(Stepping off my soapbox now...hoping I didn't offend any potential employers.)

If you work in Christian publishing, I'd love to know if I'm off base with this. Feel free to share your thoughts and disagreements in the comments section, anonymously if you feel so inclined.


Just Ask This Scientician...

First, let me say I am not scientifically inclined. I took one year of biology and two years of Forensics Science in high school (it was a law-based pseudo-magnet school). I'm not sure how reliable the latter was, since the teacher taught us J. Edgar Hoover became President of the United States. When I questioned this, she and the rest of the class proceeded to shout me down. Might be one of the reasons I have such issue with authority.

In any case, I've never quite understood the enmity between the Church and science. Call me crazy, but when it comes to studying the way the world works, I don't want scientists chalking everything up to an all-powerful deity.

For instance, since I'm not scientifically inclined, I look at a tree and I think, "Wow! It's miraculous God grew that!" I have no idea how it works. For all I know, God is coming down from heaven while I'm not around and adding new leaves and branches with some sort of wood-welder.

A scientist cannot operate under that assumption, because that is an assumption for idiots. He has to ponder how a tree grows without supernatural forces considered. That's what I want a scientist to do, because I'm not going to. Should a scientist believe there are things outside his understanding? Absolutely. Should he be content with that? No.

Further, I'm of the opinion there's nothing science could ever stumble across to disprove the existence of God. Maybe I just haven't thought hard enough. To me, science is the study of how God has structured the world, and that's pretty cool.

(For the record, I'm sure the mistrust between the scientific community and Church is more nuanced than that.)

All that said, NPR is currently running a series on "The Science of Spirituality". I caught two bits so far.

Yesterday (Part 2) was an entry on how researchers believe the brain's temporal lobe is where spiritual experiences take place, and that spiritual leaders throughout time may have had epilepsy. I confess to be slightly disturbed by the idea an experience with God could be induced by electrical currents. Also, is epilepsy really sacred?

Today's (Part 3) focused on how the brains of particularly spiritual people work while in prayer, and how our brains can be molded to focus more on spirituality.

There are dozens of things that stood out here, but there was one in particular I wanted to mention, a section in Part 3 which the narrator referred to as "theological dynamite," though tempered that by pointing out the research was early.
[Neuroscientist Andrew] Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.

"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."

When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."

Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.

"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.

Newberg's conclusion, in my opinion, underlines one of the quarrels the Church has with the scientific community, which is scientists aren't really being rational all of the time, and each person is going to have their own conscious or unconscious agenda. Newberg's research does not prove all faiths are the same.

It does, however, indicate the spiritual experience of a Muslim, Buddhist and Christian are biologically the same. (Though I'm sure many Evangelicals would say Franciscan monks don't count as real Christians.)

I think there's a general belief among Christians (and other faiths, I'm sure), that our spirituality is real, and their's is not, that our experiences are ultimately different. What if they are, biologically, the same? Does this steer you toward universalism? Does it cause you to distrust spiritual experience? Does it not concern you in the least?


My (Proverbs 31) Wife

Some scholars find the poetic description in Proverbs 31:10-31 of the so-called "Proverbs 31 woman" demeaning to women. One scholar calls the passage "the petit bourgeois portrait of the ideal wife..., or perhaps...an unattainable, male fantasy of the perfect spouse..." But I don't think it's the description in Proverbs that is demeaning; I think the problem is the ultra-conservative interpretation of it used so often by Christian men to dominate their homes.

Ellen F. Davis, a professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, helped me see how wrong this analysis is. In her book "Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture" Davis has a great essay that profoundly reinterprets Proverbs 31 through the lens of agrarianism. Proverbs 31, writes Davis, set an ideal "before a whole people living on the edge of subsistence: women householders deprived of the benefit of adult male labor, perhaps for months; men conscripted for [military] service away from home." The Proverbs 31 woman possesses an "intelligence bred through generations of work done in particular places, with particular materials, in response to concrete and immediate problems." These practical skills are protective of the life of the community. They are also deeply subversive of the claims of the imperial economy, which dominated Israel in the post-exilic period and dominate our society today. Thus the "capable wife" of my conservative upbringing becomes the "valorous woman" (a more accurate translation) undermining empire and the economic status quo.

My own wife embodies this tradition. "She plans a field and takes it; by the fruit of her palms she plants a vineyard." Kate is equipped with the skills of practical and sustainable living. (My talents are more cerebral and, let's face it, less useful.)

I recently spent some time working in the garden with my 19 month-old daughter Molly. We've expanded our garden this year; it now extends along the entire western side of the house. We planted lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and some other herbs and things I can't remember. We worked with our landlord to construct a pea trellis that is at least three times the size of last year's. The squash we planted in front, and we have twelve strawberry plants blossoming beneath the fir trees out back.

Kate has put the most time, energy, and creativity into the garden. Earlier this year she recycled an old bookshelf and an antique window to create a cold frame so we could prepare our own starters. She planted most of the garden while I was on a business trip. She is out there most every day weeding, watering, and some days I think just playing in the dirt like she is seven years old again and back on her parents' Northern California homestead.

Walking with Molly through the garden, spraying her with the hose as I watered the plants, watching her smell all twenty marigolds and tweak the nose of the gargoyle our landlord installed in the garden for good luck, watching the peas wrap their tendrils around the trellis as if in real time - I thanked God for the sun and rain, the air and the wind and the bee. I sang with St. Francis, "Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs."

I thanked God also for Kate who helped transform concrete and Oregon clay into a prosperous patch of life.

To the Class of 2009

Benjamin Button: [Voice over; letter to his daughter] For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

Dear Graduating Class of 2009,

Had a college or high school, shucks even an elementary school, invited me to give their commencement speech, I would have gladly accepted. I'd of put on a tie even. But no one asked. Therefore, I'm writing you a letter which you will probably never see. However, there is a sliver of a chance you might for I now have 14 blog followers, that's two more than Jesus had, and sometimes followers can spread the word. Sometimes.

Here is my advice, boiled down to three little words, as you step across your particular threshold: Choose your life.

There will be days when life will choose for you. You will wake up feeling weak and the doctor will whisper cancer. You'll get a phone call that Mama died. Your company will downsize leaving no room for you. The note on the kitchen table will read I've fallen out of love with you - goodbye. There will be days like that; such is the way of this life on this planet.

But there will be other days, maybe just as many if not more, when life will say Choose. The reins will slack enough so that you can choose the next direction or the next word or the next bite. Each and every day we make decisions either for or against the precious life we've been given. Phrases like well, whatever or I really don't care are not acceptable; they are the words of a coward. There are plenty of cowards who are alive, but it's only the brave who are living.

Yes, there are consequences to every choice, but I'm afraid we sometimes focus so much on what the consequences might be that we strip away the absolute rush in the veins that comes from being able to make the choice. It's like missing the questions for the answers and questions, at least in this life, are why we keep getting up in the morning. The questions always come first; they are the dew on the morning.

You need to know, if you don't already, that people will try and make your choices for you. Sometimes, oftentimes, these are the people closest to you. As you choose your life, be firm but not mean. It takes a while to learn how to do that, maybe a long, long time, but it's worth figuring out how to do. If you hurt some people, often those closest to you, as you learn this, then you can choose to say I'm sorry or not. The choice is yours. But as for the meanness, remember this: There's no excuse for being an asshole. I thought about saying that differently, but I chose to say it in a way you'd remember. And hopefully you will.

So there you have it: Choose your life. Congratulations on getting to this point. Whether by hook or by crook, you've made it this far. Where and how you go from here is not entirely up to you, but you get to have a say in it. You really do. I hope you make the best of it.


Derek Webb's up to Something

So Derek has announced that he's in conflict with his label and his album Stockhokm Syndrome may not be released.

Then he sends this email to those on his email list....

this is turning into a bigger deal than we expected. as a result, we're having to temporarily _pull everything online down (can't explain now). and to be on the s_afe side, i'm going to pe_rsonally go offline while we sort this out. i re_ally shouldn't use my twitter account for now either so _don't expect any updates there.

make no m_istake, our trouble with the label over content i_s very real, and not as simple as one word; we're back_ed into a corner. but we have applied all of our creative resources to th_is, working furiou_sly to create something that we believe not only subverts any leg_al issues but should also be a _pretty wild ride.

so this will be the l_ast email for a while. we'll t_ry to lea_k information via a new tw_itter account, @ssyndrome. you're o_n your own so start payin_g attention. i'l_l see you _on the o_ther side-

The "_",s seem to be markers for a code. If you write the letters afterward you get "paradise is a parking lot"

I don't know what that means. I do wonder if these whole dispute with the label is a put on to generate buzz. We'll see.


Meditations: Ambition and Discipline

"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."

1 Corinthians 9:25

It's very hard to discuss self-discipline and ambition with peers who are attempting to recover genuine spirituality from legalistic tradition. Defenses raise up the minute you toss phrases like "spiritual discipline" or "goals." Having been raised in the church and discovering as a teen that there's power to be had in religious performance,I get this. It took me into my college years to realize that God wasn't moved by all with my grocery list of spiritual accomplishments. Grace is tautological:He loved me because he loved me. I'm happy to be caught up in God's circular reasoning. So why would I ruin a good thing with more unnecessary expectations?

But that's exactly the discussion that Paul was attempting in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul spent much of his career sparring with believers who considered obedience to Jewish religious customs to a requisite for Salvation. According to these thinkers, you need to follow Jesus and maintain a long list of spiritual disciplines.

So isn't it strange for Paul to mock legalistic only to turn around use the language of Olympic athletes... running long miles, boxing, beating your body? At first glance it feels like Paul is just swapping a tradition form of legalism for one of his own liking.

I've mentioned in another post that I'm working on my second black belt. My first black belt is in tae kwon do and I'm working on a second in a mixed martial arts system. I'm at a place in the training that I despise. I'm just past the halfway mark, and I have about eighteen more months of training to go. I remember the feeling from the last belt, the thought that I'll never get there.

I'm not enjoying the training right now. Last Saturday I took a shot to the mouth. I still can't bite into an apple. My incisors are chipped and I lost a filling. Not looking forward to explaining this to my dentist on Monday. I felt a pit in my stomach when I read text telling me to bring my gloves to the workout this AM. Fear never goes away. I'm hobbling around a bit today because my sparring partner missed the focus mitt and kicked my thigh (David, I'm close to being sorry for the names I called you this morning). I'm tired of the morning heavy bag workouts.

I've thought of quitting. The truth is, I'm never going to be a cage fighter. I'm forty-years-old and frankly, I'm just not strong enough excel in the sport.I've never aspired to having the pooh beaten out of me. So why put myself through this?

I love the game. I used to think MMA was this barbaric game for thugs. But it really is a thinking man's game-- it's speed chess with gloves. The only way I get to play the game, even at a low level I do, is to make lifestyle changes. I can't eat what I'd prefer to eat. I need to add muscle, loose fat, and work on my flexibility. Self denial increases my freedom.

So what is Paul doing?

He's inviting people into an elite contest. Paul is suggesting that building the kingdom of heaven is as demanding as being an Olympic athlete. Kingdom building requires discipline and focused training.

Paul uses ominous language. It's possible to disqualify yourself. Paul approaches spiritual disciplines with the same intensive of a runner who knows there's only one medal waiting at finish line. Paul is being smug or self-righteous. He just know the truth; only a handful of people end their lives satisfied with the impact they've left on those around them. Only a few people die knowing that they've loved, created, or influenced enough.

So Paul takes the risk of being mistaken for being legalistic and tells the church to get control of how they spend their time, how they use their bodies, and what directions they point their lives.God has invited us to participate in the games.

We've been given God-shaped dreams. Yours might be to fight an injustice, or to create art. Yours might be to be an excellent parent, to reclaim a blighted neighborhood, or to write poetry that awakens people.

Paul reminds us that dreams mature into intentions and goals; goals must manifest themselves as objectives; and objectives must be achieved with energy and endurance.


Pygmy: Chuck Paluhniuk's Exploration of Individualism

This post is nothing as organized as a book review. But I recently finished Paluhniuk's Pygmy and have some strong impressions.

Pygmy is the story of a an adolescent teen in a terror cell, who infiltrates the US under the guise of being a foreign exchange student. "Pygmy" as his host family is not alone. Over a half-dozen peers attend the same high school using the same ruse. Their mission is to kill as many Americans as possible through "Operation Havoc."

Paluhniuk offers enough back story to let us witness the young terrorists indoctrination. The terrorist must not stand out through excellence or poor performance. Standardization is the highest virtue. Individual expression is surrendered for the good of the State. Each terrorists' future spouse has been chosen for them by the government.

Pygmy finds life in the United States as decadent his instructors promised. The home, school, and church are all filled with moral corruption and sexual decadence. Pygmy expresses contempt throughout the novel for the Americans he was trained to hate.

But he ultimately fails to complete his mission, but not because of a political chance of heart, or by embracing American sexual mores. Pygmy break ranks because for the first time in his life he's experienced freedom. He discovers the pleasure of being a hero and standing out in the crowd. America is saved, not because of the its Constitution, democracy, or religious heritage, but by the very thing that led to Paluhniuk's debauched suburbia: radical individualism.

A disclaimer for the uninitiated: Paluhniuk is a biting satirist. Pygmy's broken English and military training allows for comic descriptions of graphic violence and sexual inappropriateness. He offers a slapstick sensibility that draws the into the dark underbelly of a consumerist wasteland with a wink and a nod. If its possible to laugh and gasp at the same time, then this is what I did through much of the book

On Torture and Rejecting Straw Men

In middle school, my favorite book was Tom Clancy's Without Remorse. The book is more or less a history of one of Clancy's recurring characters, a special operative known as John Clark.

One of the book's storylines follows a pilot shot down over Vietnam, a devout Mormon named Robin Zacharias. Zacharias is being held in a Vietcong prison camp, and befriends the camp's Soviet military adviser, a Red Army colonel named Yevgenievich Grishanov. While Zacharias is tortured by the Vietnamese, Grishanov speaks to Zacharias about his faith and family. When Grishanov learns the camps captives will be executed, he requests his Soviet superiors take the captives away to Russia for the remainder of their captivity.

Whether Grishanov's empathy is true or not, Zacharias eventually spills information to him.

Years ago, I was given a post card by an Israeli man teaching a class on determining deception in sworn statements. It was a meticulous painting, sketched out by a captive of the KGB who'd been released. It was titled "KGB Interrogation Room". It was a neatly appointed office, with a desk and two chairs, and bookshelves, and a typewriter. It was inviting.

This was a theme throughout my time in US Army Intelligence. Interrogation, and similar methods of gathering information, were never about physical harm or intimidation. While I was not slotted as an interrogator, I worked closely with them, and was cross-trained on some minor interrogation techniques. I'm certainly no expert, and I worked in the lowest rung of intelligence gathering, but it seemed an unquestioned doctrinal truth, despite what we see on 24, torture does not work.

I use the word "doctrinal" because while this is what thoughtful research had yielded, I worked with some people who disagreed (though never acted on their disagreement). Whether out of sadism or rejection of previous research, they believed torture was effective.

And I would guess, at times, it is. I'm sure torture has brought out tons of information over centuries, true and untrue. But what separated us as a civilized nation was our refusal to stoop to that level.

Again, though, that's an argument about human rights, and that's what proponents of torture want you to believe, that's it's a matter of breaking a few eggs to make an omelette. After all, what's a thousand American lives compared to one terrorist's comfort?

That is what has baffled me about this whole thing. I never knew it was a question, because I assumed it's widely accepted in the professional intelligence community that torture does not work. This piece on NPR this morning shows that might be a correct.
A former senior FBI agent involved in the interrogation of captured al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, Ali Soufan, "...said his experience led him to the conclusion 'that these [harsh] techniques should not be used,' describing them as 'slow, ineffective and unreliable and as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida.'

'Al-Qaida operatives are trained to resist torture,' he testified. 'That's why … waterboarding itself had to be used 83 times [on Zubaydah],' he said, referring to information made known in a memo dated May 30, 2005. The memo also stated that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month."

Read the whole piece, including Senator Lindsey Graham's argument. To me, this is an example of torture proponents (namely, Dick Cheney) not being able to win on torture even being effective, so they make the argument about something else. It's been an ongoing theme for 8 years. Seeking out true perspectives is one of our most sacred roles as Christians, and polls like the one conducted by the Pew Forum a few weeks ago show we've fallen far short.


Wilco is streaming their upcoming album


Just saying.

When Should We Church Hop?

The great thing about writing the Church Hopping column is that I get to write about the beauty of churches. However, as the name implies, there are some people who seem to always be hopping from church to church because they disagree with the way the message is being presented at their home church or they are continually disatisfied with the community experience or they're looking to be a part of the next popular church. Sometimes there are valid reasons to hop on over to another church, and sometimes it's just nitpickiness. A recent story about a Christian school made me stop to wonder what is worth walking out of a ministry for.

As I posted over on my personal site, Asphalt Eden:

A Christian fundamentalist high school in Ohio recently said one of its students will be suspended if he takes his girlfriend to her prom at a secular school, according to the Associated Press. The Baptist school has an 84-page handbook of rules and has students sign a statement of cooperation. The school forbids dancing, holding hands, and considers rock music "part of the counterculture which seeks to implant seeds of
rebellion in young people's hearts and minds." We wonder if that includes DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline and bet they certainly frown upon Underoath and Haste
the Day.

"In life, we constantly make decisions whether we are going to please self or please God. [Seventeen-year-old Tyler Frost] chose one path, and the school committee chose the other," said Tim England, principal of Heritage Christian School.

It got me thinking: Should the high-schooler agree with his school? I mean, we do all remember how it turned out on 90210, right? Should he respectfully disagree by making a public statement but still abide by the school's rules? Should he go to prom?

Should his parents yank him out of a school that inflicts such rules since his stepdad was quoted as saying he believes his son should be allowed to go to prom? Or, should they teach him the value of loyalty and respect for authority by keeping him in the school? After all, it is just prom.
When should one decide to leave a ministry and hop on over to another one?

[image via Flickr]


Are You Serious?

A tip from my friend Kristy lead me to this poll, which sought to definitively decide which American city could truly be called "Beer City USA". Allow me to quibble with the results. (Also, what's the beer glass on that image doing in Edmonton, Alberta?)
1. Portland, OR
2. Asheville, NC
3. Philadelphia, PA
4. San Diego, CA
5. St. Louis, MO
These were followed by the Bay Area, Seattle, Denver, Portland (the Maine one), Milwaukee and Fort Collins.

Apparently, the battle for first and second, for some inexplicable reason, was close.

I'm a huge fan of North Carolina. My grandma was from there, and therefore most of my favorite culinary treats as a kid. When I barbecue pork shoulder, I douse it in vinegar sauce. I've spent some time there (unfortunately, in Fayetteville), and I want to go back. North Carolina is probably on my list of the top 10 states.

But Asheville as a brewing mecca? Hell, no. Nearly on par with Portland? Hell, no. And Philadelphia? What is that you saaaay?

So here's my list. And since it's a bit unfair to list "the Bay Area", I'm revising the rules to include regions rather than just cities. Also, mass brewers count. A town like Milwaukee may not produce the greatest beer in the world, but that's a beer town, no doubt about it. Let me know if I'm missing anyone.
1. Portland/Bend/Eugene/Oregon Coast (Widmer, Blitz-Weinhard, Deschutes, Bridgetown (correction: Bridgeport. I'm an idiot.), Rogue, Hair of the Dog, Hopworks, Full Sail, Double Mountain, McMenamins, Mt Hood, Bend, Pelican, Siletz, Ninkasi, Amnesia, Roots.)

2. Denver/Fort Collins/Boulder/Colorado Springs (Coors, New Belgium, Great Divide, Avery, Left Hand, Odell's, Ska, Oskar Blues, Boulder, Flying Dog, Breckinridge.)

3. Bay Area/Northern California (Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, Lagunitas, North Coast, Anderson Valley, Mendocina, Bear Republic, Russian River, North Coast, Bison, Speakeasy, Schmaltz)

4. San Diego/Escondido (Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, Green Flash, Coronado, Firehouse, Port/Lost Abbey)

5. Milwaukee/Chicago (Miller, Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Goose Island, Three Floyds, Flossmoor)

6. Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia (Hamms, Olympia, Dick's, Pyramid, Mac and Jack's, Elysian, Redhook)

7. East Coast* (Sam Adams, Dogfish Head, Allagash, Ommegang, Portsmouth)

8. St. Louis (Anheuser-Busch, Boulevard, Schlafly)

9. Idaho/Eastern Oregon/Montana (Big Sky, Beer Valley, Terminal Gravity, Grand Teton, Montana, Bozeman)

* "East Coast" refers to everything from Maine south to Delaware.
Actually, that's all I've got. Any suggestions for #9 and #10? We've got a fair share of readers in NC...can anyone tell me how they made the list?

Obviously, there's some west coast leaning here, which is to be expected. But there are also two practical reasons for the west being a dominant brewing culture.

First, the further west you go, the more likely you'll find innovation. To establish identity and compete with major beer regions like the Midwest, England and Germany, western brewers had to think creatively and run over expectations.

Second, the Pacific Northwest is the best hop-growing region in the US, and hops also grow well in Sonoma County. Proximity to beer's most important crop plays a major role.

This is a non-debatable point.


Letters to Eve

artwork by artist He Qi

Dear Eve,

You wouldn’t know me from Adam, but my name is Kim, and I am a very distant great-granddaughter of yours. I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to Ron and Debbie in 1975 A.D., and now I reside with my husband and children in one of its northern suburbs. Indianapolis, by the way, is really far from where you were from. There are thousands and thousands of miles between the location of your garden and where I live now. In more ways than one.

Eve, I have been thinking about you a lot lately. You’ve been on my mind because you were really the only woman to know what a perfect life was like. In your early days, there was no illness or relational strife. Nourishing food was always at your immediate disposal, and your fingernails could probably remain intact while procuring it. Not that I would care, but I’m just guessing. The weather was probably always pleasant. You were naked, after all, so it had had to be at least a constant eighty degrees or so. And I bet you never had trouble sleeping since there was no stress to keep you up late at night. There was no work, just play. Quite simply, you lived in a perfect world and probably didn’t even know it, or at least until it was too late. I’m really sorry about that, by the way. That silly serpent really threw you for a loop. He threw us all for a loop.

Anyway, quite often I find myself pining for what once was, even if it was something I never personally experienced. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of beautiful aspects about life that I can see now, even from just where I’m sitting. We’ve created it that way on purpose. There are tulips from my husband on the kitchen table, our children’s beautiful artwork on the walls, our rescued dogs freely running about our fenced in backyard. But there are just days when the results of that little fruit incident weigh heavily on my existence, despite living in an ideal community that, in many ways, tries to mimic your former residence. And then I think of you and want so badly the life that you once enjoyed – so much I could cry.

I also catch myself thinking about you because you were the very first woman and mother to all. You were created by God himself and became the template for the rest of us. Abba, our father, formed you and shaped you, and I imagine He sculpted you with care, slowly and with attention to detail. You must have been stunning. I bet you glowed with radiance far greater than we could ever obtain from a bottle. You know, Eve, we spend a lot of time these days talking about women’s issues and becoming stronger women and we applaud and celebrate the legends that have paved the way for the rest of us. But your legacy is even greater than all those combined, I feel. It’s greater than Oprah’s even, though that almost seems sacrilege in our culture. I was actually scared to type that, to be truthful. But no matter the astounding accomplishments of fabulous women around the world, no matter what they have done to impress their lives on the rest of us, you are the reason they are doing it. We are patterned after you, Eve, the original, flawless design. And I think about that when I go shopping, buy cosmetics, or have my hair highlighted and wonder what it is I’m truly purchasing – superficial beauty, or the feeling that I can glow like you originally did? I wonder, when I teach my daughters to use their voices and stand tall, am I really just longing for what might have been? For what you had? For what’s rightfully ours? Is it rightfully ours?

But most of all, I wonder about that relationship with God that you had. What was it like not to need any faith because you could see God and walk and talk with Him without just having to sing about it? An authentic, personal relationship with God can seem so obscure and abstract to us today, and we constantly belittle ourselves for not believing enough, but for you it was very tangible, concrete, and open. When God seems distant, when my strangely vivid visions or dreams are apparently spiritually meaningful yet excruciatingly cryptic, or when I have to surf the wave of spiritual emotion as long as I can because that’s all I’ve got, I think about you.

Yes, Eve, I’ve been thinking about you a lot. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to write to you now and again to help me process my musings about the state of the world, your hand in that, and what that means for me - for us - today.

Well, anyway, I’ve got some women’s work waiting for me, so, to quote Tigger, ta-ta for now.

Your friend,



Who to Root for Now

Last week, after a season of blowing all expectations out of the water, the Blazers were finally sliced from the playoffs by the Houston Rockets. It was painful. It was a tough game to watch. I blindly believed the Blazers could go all the way, all they had to do was get by Houston (Portland matches up well with the L*kers, and would play with abandon as an underdog again).

I spent 6 games hating the Rockets, crying against every Greg Oden foul (a 20 year old rookie will not get calls against the entire shoe-buying population of China), mentally stabbing Luis Scola in a back alley, and watching in horror as my favorite college baller of the last decade, Aaron Brooks, slipped past Steve Blake like one of these around one of these. Also, Lamarcus Aldridge solidifying comparisons to Rasheed Wallace by resorting to long jumpers despite being one of the most gifted low block talents in the NBA.

So it pains me, just a bit, to announce I'm rooting for Houston for the remainder of their playoff life, for these reasons:

- I can't help but like Yao. Sure, he represents a massive country with a dubious human rights record, but he also carries the burden of 1.3 billion people on his shoulders, and he seems like an affable guy. In the Rockets' game 1 upset of the L*kers, Yao looked done for good after knocking knees with Kobe Bryant. In the tunnel, being helped out, he suddenly stopped and told the trainers he had to go back. They made him to a few deep knee bends to see if there was any damage, and Yao was back on the court in a few minutes.

Either it was the most scripted act in NBA history, or it was highly inspiring. With David Stern, I'd believe the former, but with Yao, I believe the latter.

- Ron Artest is crazy, but he's awesome crazy. Sure, he was a main culprit in the most infamous incident in the last decade, but he also called Brandon Roy the best player he'd played against in a more understatedly crazy way.

If Ron Artest were white, he'd be beloved as Chris Andersen (who's off-court behavior has been even worse), a tenacious defender and a player who gives his all on every play. There's a chapter about him in FreeDarko's Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, which helped explain him.

(By the way, I don't care if you're not into sports...you MUST read that book. It's a brilliant piece of art, from the incredible writing to the drawings to the way it will make you love basketball the way you'd love a Russian novel.)

- Aaron Brooks. Early on in Brooks' senior year, the Oregon Ducks were down 10 to the Rice Owls with 1:43 to go. Then they were down 8 with :56 left. I turned the game off. The Ducks came back to tie after Brooks and Tajuan Porter shot the lights out, and they won in overtime. After that, I never turned another Ducks game off early again, and I never worried when they were down big. That team pushed into the Elite 8 before they were snuffed out by a Florida Gators team (again assisted by some dubious officiating - Florida shot 43 free throws to Oregon's 16) that later won its second NCAA championship.

Watching Aaron Brooks score is a thing of beauty, especially down the stretch, so watching him against the Blazers was a bit like watching your best friend get the crap beat out of him by Kimbo Slice...you may hate what's going on, but you can't deny it's fun to watch.

- Rick Adelman. He lead the Blazers to some of our best seasons in the '90s, and was the head coach of some great teams that just came up short (those Blazer teams, and the Kings in the early '00s). He has strong ties to the Portland area, still owns a house there, and his family coaches around town. He also looks weirdly similar to my dad.

Every time I see look at that second image, I hurriedly begin cleaning the house an muttering, "Please don't hit me, father. Not again..." Instinct, I guess.

So until next season, at which point the Blazers hopefully have a decent point guard, go Rockets!

(This post dedicated to Leo Longoria and Chris Seay, who enjoyed talking trash via Facebook messages. I'll take solace you both live in one of the worst cities on earth. Have fun with that sprawl!)