College education as a matter of life and death

College education as a matter of life and death

I’m a college professor.

But even I know there are bad reasons to attend a university.

Here is a good one: You’re much less likely to die young.

Note these findings from a 2017 study that tracks changing mortality rates amongst non-college educated white Americans especially. Pay attention to the top lines (labeled “high school or less.”)

Drug and alcohol poisoning deaths

Drug, suicid, alcohol deaths

CORRELATION AND CAUSATION

When reading these studies, it’s important to remember that correlation isn’t causation. It’s not necessarily the lack of a degree that is contributing to a frightening rise in early deaths in certain demographics.

There are many complex factors. But I suspect part of the problem is an increasing deficit of hope in certain parts of the country. And this is being expressed in everything from suicide, to opioid addiction, to a growth in scapegoating ideologies like white nationalism and white supremacy.

Note the stunning comparison between America and other nations:

US mortality compared to other nations

Some good news in the study is that mortality rates (for certain age groups) have declined amongst non whites. The bad news is that the closing gap between racial groups has come more by a precipitice decline amongst non-college educated whites than by improvements elsewhere.

A DEFICIT OF HOPE

The cause, according to the study, is more complicated than a simple look at income.

In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality has fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends…

The study suggests that the cause of this decline has to do with

cumulative disadvantage[s] … triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education.”

In other words, factories and mines closed; and it was no longer possible to get a good job without education (see also my treatment of this theme in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

The way of life within the rust belt changed, and frustration over a world that no longer exists fueled a rise in opioid addiction, race-based populism, and scapegoating. (Picture the late Weimar Republic but with fentanyl in place of Zyklon B.)

CONCLUSION

The solution to all this is far more complex than simply telling young Americans to “go to college.”

But as I head back to faculty meetings today and to classes next week, it’s worth remembering that the completion of a college education is more than just a privilege or a foregone conclusion: For some of my students, it’s part of the difference between life and death.

 


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It’s NOT just a heart issue

It’s NOT just a heart issue

Imagine a township in which literally hundreds of people died every year from heart attacks.

In this one municipality (unlike all others), cardiac fatalities were so insanely common that they now went largely unnoticed, except when the paramedics came to your door.

In response, citizens studied the situation and formed possible solutions that involved a variety of factors: diet, exercise, smoking, family history, and better medical testing.

This wouldn’t end all heart attacks, of course, but it might stop some.

Then imagine if a well-meaning Christian offered this:

“Stop bringing up all this stuff about diet, exercise, and smoking! Clogged arteries are a heart issueand only Jesus can heal hearts.”

How might we respond?

THE TROUBLE WITH FALSE CHOICES

We could point out that “Yes, heart attacks are ‘a heart issue’—but they are not just that.” And because they are not just that, it would be foolish to prevent them with only prayer and preaching. The reason, however, has nothing to do with prayer and preaching being weak. “Heart issues” require a variety of responses.

Since they have a variety of causes, they require nuanced, both-and thinking, and they are not solved by false dichotomies: trans fats vs. lack of exercise; family history vs. sugary sodas; stress vs. smoking.

It’s not either/or—it’s both-and.  And yes, it is also “a heart issue.”

Unfortunately, in our current climate, both-and thinking seems to be anathema, and especially in the land of social media–where nuance goes to die.

It’s either “a heart issue” or “a gun issue.”

It’s either “a failure of parenting” or “a failure of the mental health system.”

It’s either “what happens when we turn from God,” or “what happens when even self-advertising psychopaths can access their own private arsenal.”

Never have I seen so many false choices.

One is tempted to scream, “MAYBE IT’S ‘ALL OF THE ABOVE’!!!”

JESUS AND FALSE CHOICES

Which brings me to Jesus. One day after yet another horrific massacre, a student in my Bible class asked this:

“In the Gospels, why does Jesus almost never give people a straight answer?”

It’s a great question, and I was about to answer it until I remembered Jesus. So I proceeded to ask questions and tell stories.

“Do you remember what was written on the whiteboard today?”

A few nodded.

Someone had written two “options” on the front board prior to class. OPTION ONE was to craft an essay entitled “Take away all guns,” while OPTION TWO was to “Give them to the good guys.”

(I have since learned that this was not a professor’s own view. The inscription simply made a point about how thesis statements work. My misunderstanding therefore presents yet another example of how we easily create false choices. But I digress…)

Then I asked: “Is it possible that those might NOT be the only two options?”

What if framing the debate in such simplistic and false-dichotomizing terms actually prevents someone from answering intelligently?

That’s why Jesus rarely accepted the premises of his partisan questioners.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2)

“Whose wife will she be in the Age to Come?” (Matt 22:28)

When you’re asking the wrong “either/or question,” you can’t get the right answer.

As someone mentioned recently, it’s as if the binary codes that run our social media (all ones and zeros) have infected us. We have been conformed to their electronic image. And now we too must be all “ones” or “zeros” on every complex issue.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

CONCLUSION

In the end, I don’t know how to solve mass shootings. They have many causes, and I suspect they will require many nuanced solutions—all of which will cost us something.

But I do know this: We’ll continue getting nowhere so long as we fall into our partisan talking-points of “gun issue” vs. “sin issue.”

It’s time to stop being “ones” and “zeros” and start being people.


This is an adapted version of an old post (Feb. 16, 2018) that I wish were no longer relevant.

 

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Cut these words for better writing

Cut these words for better writing

Scot McKnight has a helpful post (here) on “No, no” words for writers. These are terms that are often overused and lead to clutter.

So if you’re a writer—or a student typing papers for my classes—listen up! 🙂

Scot’s post builds on a book by Benjamin Dreyer (here), in which a challenge is issued:

Go a week without writing

very
rather
really
quite
in fact

To which Scot adds

just
so
actually
of course
surely
that said

It’s not that these words should never be used.

Note my use of “So” above (#Can’t_Stop_Won’t_Stop). But in most cases, they should be cut faster than a University of Kansas grad at an NFL training camp.

THE EDITOR THAT GROANS WITHIN US

I’ve written previously (here) about the helpfulness of a “firm but patient editor.” And I likened that role to the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life.

That post came to mind again as I’ve been editing a manuscript in preparation for a December deadline (Eeeek!).

To be blunt, the“No-no” words are lighting up my page like Christmas lights. Here’s an example of how I was able to cut eleven words (or word parts) from two short sentences.

eleven words

Not a single nuance was lost, which means every one of those words was bloating my book like empty calories in a bag of Doritos.

My favorite book on writing is the classic by William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

In his words

“Writing improves in direct ration to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

Indeed.

So take the challenge.

And check out Scot’s blog if you’re interested in issues of Bible and culture. It’s great.


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God’s voice, like horses grazing

God’s voice, like horses grazing

“Godless” seems like an apt description of Cormac McCarthy’s violent and disturbing novel, Blood Meridian.

The story is based loosely on events from the 1850s near the Texas-Mexico border. It follows a fourteen-year-old “Kid” who ends up riding with a band of murders who seek Apache scalps for profit. The butchery and racism make it difficult to read.

But like much of McCarthy’s work, Blood Meridian yields theological marrow if one digs beneath the clotted surface. The foremost of these insights comes from an ex-priest named “Toby” who tries to explain the mystery of God’s silence in their nightmarish world.

McCarthy
Why it takes me forever to finish a book…

LIKE HORSES GRAZING

God’s voice, says Toby, is like the sound of horses grazing in the night. We only notice it when he stops talking: “when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep … Don’t nobody hear them.” But if they cease for a moment, every soul awakes.

“God speaks in the least of creatures.” And “No man is give[n] leave of that voice.”

This claim gives reason to respect both the ubiquity and the mystery of revelation. And this resonates with my experience.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing.

HIDDENNESS AND OMNIPRESENCE

Kate Sonderegger explores a related theme in the much-heralded first volume of her Systematic Theology. Her interest is in the relationship between God’s hiddenness and his omnipresence.

Israel’s God is unique in his invisibility. He is not to be depicted by graven images like the gods of other nations. Yahweh is heard, but he is never truly seen. For this reason, Sonderegger claims that God’s hiddenness is one of the most important parts of his revelation to Israel.

He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One. (p. 52)

the Hiddenness of God, His Secrecy and Mystery, emerge not form absence but rather from divine presence. … “Truly,” the prophet confesses, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). (p. 68-69)

I don’t like Sonderegger’s writing (*tongue in cheek).

It makes me jealous, since she has a way with words that is rivaled by few living theologians. But I am serious when I say now that I did not like this particular argument initially.

At some points it sounded too much like what C. S. Lewis lampooned as the “argument for invisible cats.” Here’s my version of that logic:

“Do you see that invisible cat by the sofa?”
“No.”
“Precisely.”

“I hate you.”

But this is not exactly Sonderegger’s claim.

She is not appealing to invisibility to prove God’s presence. She is only reminding us that the apparent absence of a visible “divine specimen” (graven image) is one of the things that marks out Israel’s God as different.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing. We see no “creature” in the darkness, and it is the very constancy of this revelation that can make it like a kind of “white noise.”

But when it ceases, the whole camp awakes.

I’ve written previously about this theme in a post about the “dazzling darkness” (one of my favorites, though I think few others thought so). I noted there that, for Paul, God reveals himself precisely through “invisible qualities” (Rom 1:20). Creation testifies incessantly with speechless words (Ps 19:2-3). Our problem is, it won’t shut up.

CAVEATS

Despite my praise for this line of thinking, there are some important caveats that must be placed alongside the gospel according Sonderegger/Blood Meridian.

  1. God’s voice isn’t always soft and “horse-like” (Ask Saul of Tarsus).
  2. God isn’t left entirely without an “Image” (Re: Jesus and his image-bearers).
  3. God’s “silence” is sometimes the product selective hearing, since acknowledging the voice requires us to change.

(On that last point, note that the ex-priest Toby has set aside his collar for a rifle and a life of violence. He doesn’t want to “wake up” to the reality of his own murderous racism [Let the reader understand].)

CONCLUSION

Caveats aside, the scene from Blood Meridian helps me understand how two brilliant individuals (McCarthy and Sonderegger) can reach opposite conclusions based on similar data:

McCarthy: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (The Road)

Sonderegger: God’s invisibility is the mark of omnipresence.

In fact, “Toby’s” claim is closer to the truth than than the apparent view of McCarthy himself.

The world isn’t “Godless.”

But we need “ears to hear” a voice like horses grazing.


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Redeeming Stranger Things

Redeeming Stranger Things

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been aboard the Stranger Things hype train.

I even wondered once or twice if the wildly popular series might have made a better T-Shirt than a TV show.

Think about it. A shirt—or perhaps a line of posters—could retain the brilliant casting and the flawless 80s aesthetic without the occasionally-dragging plotline, the silly monster, and tired trope of alternate dimensions. (I mean, come on, you’re telling me there could be a secret but successful Russian plot to utilize technology and undermine US stability by releasing a “monster” that cares only for himself while reeking societal destruction. That couldn’t happen.)

Note: I had thought that.

But the final episode of Season 3 redeemed the show for me.

One reason is that Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” is perhaps the greatest “soundtrack song” of all time. (Fight me.)

But that wasn’t the only one.

Alongside classics like The Goonies and The Sandlot, the most compelling theme of Stranger Things is the possibility of redemptive friendship in a communion of misfits.

This comes across most memorably when Dustin (played by Gaten Matarazzo) sings a nervous, then progressively more jubilant, duet with his ham radio girlfriend, Suzie. The Neverending Story never seemed so fantastic.

And then there is the heart-wrenching final scene that explores one of the most painful and universally memorable of childhood experiences: a best friend moving away.

I’ll never forget my own daughter Penelope—with jagged bangs she cut with mommy’s scissors—running toward me sobbing because it was the first day after Christmas break, and she had learned (in front of the whole class) that her best friend, Lila, had moved to a different school. “I didn’t even get to tell her bye!!!” she sobbed.

If that doesn’t break your heart, then you’re as soulless as that gelatinous monster in the TV show.

Stranger Things taps into that feeling.

“We few, we happy few”—we band of misfits.

That’s one aspect of what the church is supposed to be: a “peculiar people” (1 Pet 2:9), not (please note) because we act genuinely crazy in a breathless conformity to Cable News and Talk Radio paranoia—but because real holiness and sacrificial love will always be “strange things” in a culture obsessed with image and abdominal muscles (like Billy, the pool hunk).

To that point, another virtue of the season finale is the way even Billy is humanized and drawn into the communion of misfits through the conduit of past pain and present forgiveness. A lesson here is that even “cool kids” feel like oddballs, even as they scoff at Dustin, El, and their ragtag gang.

To try to “fix” this peculiarity of the church is an obsession within some segments of evangelicalism (see here). And there are sometimes good reasons for it. “Weirdness,” after all, is not always a virtue. But in other cases, the attempt to excise peculiarity from God’s people has made us less like Jesus and more like the poolside housewives who gaze longingly at Billy as he strides–bronzly, and behind his mustache–to his lifeguard chair.

I heard a youth pastor say once that his church focused “primarily” on reaching the cool kids (prom queens, quarterbacks, “Billy”), because the less cool kids would then invariably “follow” after them.

It may have seemed like good “strategy,” but it was the opposite of what Jesus did.

Christ’s model was more about redeeming the “strange things” (fishermen and former prostitutes), and then pulling “Billy” into this alternate (Kingdom) dimension through the conduit of sacrificial love and unconditional forgiveness.

Stranger Things, for all its faults, gives a glimpse of that dynamic: the communion of saints as the communion of misfits (communio sanctorum as communio peculiare).

So I take back my initial “hot take” about it being better as a T-shirt.

(But mark my word: the monster is still stupid.)


 

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How do I approach time management?

How do I approach time management?

A former student asked me if I’d write a post about how I manage time successfully.

Answer: I don’t always.

And writing a “How to” on the topic is like writing a book about prayer. No one does it without a sense of hypocrisy.

Still, here are a few things I try to do:

1. Don’t spill things on the laptop.

I did that last week. Much time was lost. Also, half my screen is currently cloaked in a dark haze. Maranatha.

2. Get up early, even when you don’t have to.

I rarely work late. But I do get up early (5:45am), regardless of whether it is “Summer Break” or not. It’s amazing how much one can accomplish when few people are awake to interrupt you, and when the coffee flows like rushing river in a repetitive early 2000s worship chorus.

My early wakeup is bookended by an equally geriatric bedtime (9:05pm). Though in my experience, very little “time management” happens after that anyway.

3. Avoid unnecessary meetings.

Like the plague. This is a touchy one because it’s not always possible, and it can prevent one from “climbing the ladder” in certain settings.

But if you are trying to make the most of your time, unnecessary meetings are Dementors that will suck your soul and leave you wondering why a single, carefully-worded email would not have sufficed. Not all meetings are like that, but some are.

4. Reading before Netflix

Since a fair amount of my work (writing, preaching, teaching) benefits from time spent reading, I bookend my morning research (usually theology) with evening fiction or biographies. This summer that has involved some Steinbeck, Alan Jacobs, C. S. Lewis, and Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian [#yikes]).

If I do writing before bed, I can’t sleep. I just rehash it all night long in a kind of editorial fever dream. But reading fiction for about 45 minutes before switching to Netflix helps redeem the evening time. It makes me a better writer; and it’s fun — unless I’m reading Blood Meridian.

5. Sabbath

When I moved to Boston for Seminary, I didn’t know a single person. And as an over-achieving firstborn, I felt like the best way to maximize productivity and stave off loneliness was to work seven days a week and in the evenings too.

(Fun fact: I also had mono, so you can guess how well that turned out.)

The next year, Brianna moved closer, and I started taking evenings and Sundays off. In short, I took a Sabbath. One might think this made me less productive, but it actually did the opposite. My grades were better. My mood was better. My soul was healthier. And (after a tonsillectomy) my mono finally left the building.

Sabbath: It’s almost, like, a commandment.

6. Name your non-negotiables

There are only so many hours in a day. And on many occasions that means that something on my “to do” list isn’t going to get done. The question is just which “something” that will be.

I have a few non-negotiables that will happen regardless of Hell or high water: (1) Early morning time in Scripture; (2) at least some time writing and researching every weekday; (3) evenings with family; (4) four to five workouts per week with my buddies (if I’m in town).

This blog isn’t on that list. Nor is Netflix. Nor is time spent reformatting a New Testament lecture that I’ve given twenty-seven times.

Some of my non-negotiables may seem odd since they have nothing to do with my job requirements. I am not required to publish. Nor am I required to workout or spend evenings with family. But those things matter; they make me feel alive; and that enables me to do the stuff I don’t like nearly as much.

Your non-negotiables will be different. But it’s helpful to “name” and “claim” them (~Kenneth Copeland).

7. Figure out what can be done on “Empty” and what must be done on “Full.”

The cerebral frontal cortex is expensive to operate. That’s the part of the brain that controls much of our higher cognitive skills, emotional expression, problem solving, memory, and language. And it takes a lot of energy to run well. Mine starts shutting down around noon (see Point #2).

That means that I need to save activities that I can do “on Empty” for the afternoon, while reserving activities that require more “cerebral bandwidth” for when I’m full (i.e., full of caffeine). Sermons must be written on “Full”—so too with books and any creative activities. Grading, answering emails, dish-washing and (oddly) workouts can be done on “Empty.”

In fact, doing the workouts on “Empty” often has the surprising effect of making me feel “Full” again when I head home to be with the kids.

CONCLUSION

There are a hundred other things that could be added to such a list. But I’m probably not very good at those. And I’m out of time.


 

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The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

“There will be millstones.”

That was O. Alan Noble’s succinct summation of the Southern Baptist Commission’s recent report (here) on widespread sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The findings were heartbreaking. Though I applaud the efforts to bring them to the light in order to elicit change (see here).

Still, the most damning reality in the run-up to this week’s SBC annual meeting was that much more energy seemed to be expended by certain leaders to keep women out of almost any form of leadership than to ensure that they be protected against abuse and cover-up.

The optics were, shall we say, not flattering.

NOT JUST AN “SBC” PROBLEM

It would be unfair, however, to see this as merely an SBC problem. And it would be downright sinful to congratulate ourselves (who reside in other traditions) for being superior: “Thank you Lord that I am not like those people… .”

Regardless of denomination, if you’ve seen one online argument over women in ministry, you’ve seen ‘em all.

At some point in the predictable “Inquisition by Gif,” at least one well-meaning (?) person will make the following two points:

  1. Many denominations that affirmed women in ministry went “Liberal” and experienced numerical decline.
  2. Ergo, affirming women in ministry leads to the package deal of “Liberalism” with all that it entails (Marxism, veganism, compulsory man-buns).

The first point has some basis in reality. The second is absurd even without my parenthetical silliness.

The problem starts, as with so many logical trip-ups, in the linkage of two ideas that confuses correlation with causation.

On the basis of this false connection, the conclusion follows that if the fundamentalist Twitter-verse allows someone like Beth Moore to give a Mother’s Day message at her local church, it’s only a matter of time (probably minutes) before a vegan, Marxist, SBC death-panel forces Al Mohler to don a man-bun and preach exclusively from Rob Bell books.

But he won’t, because: Bonhoeffer.

If this description quickly devolves into exaggerated nonsense that is precisely my point. It is both foolish and inaccurate to equate an affirmation of women in ministry with a drift toward the package deal of “Liberalism.”

“CONSERVING” THE SPIRIT-DRIVEN PARADIGM

One reason is that there are numerous arguments for women in leadership that proceed on the basis of a high view of Scripture.

Though I’m not a biblical scholar by trade, one might begin by noting these two videos by Ben Witherington (here and here), and the fantastic series of blog-posts by my former seminary schoolmate, the New Testament specialist, Nijay Gupta (here).

If these scholars are correct, then Scripture provides both theological basis and real-world examples of women in leadership and ministry—including Deborah, Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and the daughters of Philip. And if this is so, then the “liberal revisionist position” is actually the refusal to “conserve” that Spirit-driven paradigm (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

So let me be the first to say it (though with a touch of good-natured, imitative sarcasm):

“I’m really worried about the “liberal drift” of complementarianism.”

THE FALLACY OF UNNECESSARY BUNDLING

A further problem in the two points above is the false assumption that “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are theological package deals that can be simply defined by our contemporary news-cycle.

Whenever this debate arises on social media, the assumption of the “Emojihadeen” seems to be that to care about “Progressive” causes (e.g., racial reconciliation, misogyny, sexual abuse) invariably means that one must not care about “Conservative” ones (e.g., abortion, religious liberty). This is nonsense.

I have spoken of it elsewhere as the fallacy of unnecessary “bundling,” since there are some issues for which our colloquial use of “Liberal” and “Conservative” are just not helpful.

Overall, Christians would do better to stick with biblical categories, as in whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

CONCLUSION

None of my words  should be taken to imply that a biblical conclusion on women in ministry is either simple or uncontested. The so-called problem passages must be addressed.

Nor am I claiming that complementarians are always motivated by misogynistic drives. Some aren’t. And the SBC has some fantastic servant-leaders. It will not do, therefore, to replace one exaggerated ad hominem with another one.

My argument here is only to urge a “retiring” of the false assumption that affirming women in ministry signals a slide into “Liberalism.”

When we do that, we hazard tethering ourselves to Twitter feeds that may one day be “linked” inexorably to millstones.

 


 

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