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What to Learn from the Zakaria & Lehrer Plagiarism Scandals

If you follow journalism as I do, you’re aware that it’s a big deal when a big-time journalist is busted for plagiarism.  Stephen Glass.  Jayson Blair.  It’s not every day that a major-media figure gets in hot water for passing off someone else’s work as their own, though I haven’t heard much evangelical talk about these events.

In recent weeks, not one but two major public intellectuals have been caught plagiarizing.  Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large of Time and host of CNN’s “GPS,” used New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s material without attribution in Time.  Jonah Lehrer, staff writer for the New Yorker (oddly related to both scandals), made up quotations from Bob Dylan for his best-selling Imagine (which I actually blogged a while back when it came out!).  Zakaria is presently suspended from Time and CNN, while Lehrer has been fired from the New Yorker (image to the left from Nina Subin/NYT).

Again, this may not be of interest to you–but it’s a very big deal in the world of ideas.  Both of these men play a big role in that world, and both have–or had–major platforms from which to broadcast their views.  Not incidentally, both did quite well for themselves–apparently Lehrer was drawing up to $20,000 per speech for his blend of pop-science and pop-psychology.  Though their fall from favor is difficult to witness, it’s also heartening to see our society respond to cheating and thievery in moral and ethical terms.  God’s common grace is at work in our world, much as it may appear otherwise at times.

What does this mean for the rest of us?  These scandals show the limits of even the most gifted person.  Both Zakaria and Lehrer are, from even a quick glance at their bios, overcommitted to the point of near-lunacy.  Ambition is a taxing master, and an evil one.  Lehrer writes for multiple outlets, travels constantly, and in his downtime writes best-sellers.  Zakaria hosts a show, writes a column, and also travels a great deal.  You and I may not be facing the schedules of these two figures, but it is incumbent upon us to structure our lives in a way that makes sense, a way that accords with the kind of biblical wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.

Those of who are ambitious–and there is a godly form of it, no doubt–need the rhythms of church, family, service, and friendship to steer us away from our worst selves.  If we make ourselves too busy, we will do nothing well, and our lives will suffer in numerous areas.  I remember being disappointed at the hashed-over nature of a major evangelical leader’s talk.  I told my then-boss that I had heard 75% of the talk, which I had been eagerly anticipating, in previous years.  My boss then said, “Well, if you don’t give yourself any time to think and refresh, that’s what you’ll end up doing–regurgitating and rehashing.”  And plagiarizing.

And getting booted from your platforms.

So: do less.  Write less than you could.  Turn stuff down.  Practice the fine art of saying “no.”  Rest in God’s sovereignty and trust that He will get you to where you need to go.  Learn from scandals like these (and harrowing and moving testimonies like this from Jayson Blair).  And when you do write, be careful with your sources.  We all are human on this point, and need to constantly strive for excellence, and make corrections when we’re wrong–and none of us are above tumbling down our own hill of dreams.

And finally, pray for journalists and thought-leaders like Zakaria and Lehrer who have staked so much, so very much, on getting ahead and being the best.

They–and we–need a gospel that frees them from the slavery of unchecked ambition and the impossibility of failure.  They need a gospel that takes all their sins, nails them to wood, and puts them to death.

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The Death of Junior Seau & Head Injuries: 10 Essential Resources

Junior Seau, football hall-of-famer and former New England Patriot, is dead.  It appears that he committed suicide.  Seau was 43 and had an ex-wife and three children.

This is the latest in a growing line of NFL suicides, and Seau is the sixth member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers team to die from suicide, alcohol or drugs (two other Chargers died in freak accidents).  It is not immediately clear that Seau killed himself because of brain trauma and resulting mental illness, but there are forbiddingly ominous signs of the same (he did suffer many concussions, that much is clear).  Two years ago, Seau survived a 100-foot plunge off a cliff following a fight with his girlfriend.  He said that he fell asleep at the wheel, but one sees a pattern here in relation to previous tragic deaths of NFL players and other athletes (see below).  All this discussion must, of course, be conducted with clear reference to human sinfulness, which is our primary problem.  But our physical actions can aid and abet our sin and fallenness, that much seems clear.

On Twitter, I discussed this issue with some friends and connected this death to the strong possibility of brain injury.  Good questions were raised, and someone asked about hard data that helps to substantiate the connection between football violence and bizarre, even deadly, behavior.  Below are some links that I’ve culled on this subject, one that has personally interested me for three years.

1. The New York Times compendium on brain injuries and sports–The foremost journalistic resource on this entire subject, with dozens of articles (Joe Nocera of the NYT has led the charge, to his credit).  An absolute must-visit, though you may burn through your 10 free articles per month here!

2. Jonah Lehrer’s Grantland essay–Filled with data, scientific discussion of the brain, and why the problem of concussions is bedeviling (it’s not easy to stop the brain from moving around).  Frightening fact: includes mention of the only youth brain studied, that of an 18-year-old player–the brain showed clear evidence of irreversible brain trauma.

3. ESPN reporting on Owen Thomas–A Penn football star who committed suicide and whose brain clearly showed CTE

4. New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell–Famously compared football to dog-fighting.  Included some of the earliest research on collision impacts on football, which liked a UNC practice to a series of “minor car crashes”

5. ESPN coverage of the death of Dave Duerson–Committed suicide and shot himself in the chest, apparently in order to preserve his brain for concussion research (Seau did the same, possibly for similar reasons)

6. Early GQ piece on brain injuries and the courageous doctor studying them–“[He saw] brown and red splotches. All over the place. Large accumulations of tau proteins. Tau was kind of like sludge, clogging up the works, killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.  This was why Mike Webster was crazy.”

7. First Things essay I did on this subject linking to many articles on this topic

8. Coverage of a pro wrestler who went crazy and killed his wife and son–“Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.”

9. Minnesota Public Radio coverage of the brain injuries of deceased hockey player Derek Boogard

10. Research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine that shows negative brain effects from heading balls in soccer

In listing these resources, I’m not suggesting that Christians can’t play or watch football or other contact-oriented sports, but surely there must be productive things that we can do to address these issues.  That all starts, of course, with information, and though I’m not a doctor nor a researcher, I want to try to help others think well about violence, sports, and the application to every area of the Christian conscience created by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Lonely Love: Seeking Marriage Through the Internet

Is it right for Christians to find a spouse through the Internet?

A recent story in the New Yorker leads to questions like this for committed evangelicals. “Looking for Someone” by Nick Paumgarten paces through the recent explosion of online dating, a phenomenon that has led to real-life marriage for many couples. One selection from the piece shows the complexity of the new romantic landscape:

[T]he fastest-growing online-dating demographic is people over fifty—a function perhaps of expanding computer literacy and diminished opportunity. I recently got to know a woman I’ll call Mary Taft, who is seventy-six, has a doctorate in education, and has been married and divorced twice. She lives outside Boston. As a single mother, in her forties, she gave up men for a while….In 2000, she put an ad in Harvard Magazine. “This seemed horrible to me, but I got all kinds of responses. A nice guy from Vermont drove all the way down to see me.” And then, when she was almost seventy, she discovered Internet dating, and the frequency and variety of her assignations intensified.

The essay traces new developments in romance, but the broader reality behind the piece is ages-old: how to find someone to spend the rest of one’s life with. Civilizations and societies have offered different answers to this quandary with varying results. Whatever one thinks about arranged marriage, for example, it certainly offered a straightforward solution to the question of whom to marry. Though many choice-driven westerners would balk at such an arrangement, we cannot conclude that it does not offer a solution.

This is a matter that requires the attention of pastors and churches. How are we to help singles find spouses in our day? Do we leave them to the wilds of the Internet? I might suggest that the church take an active role in caring for its single members by stressing the essential goodness of the community of Christ. Online dating may not be wrong–it may well led to marriage in some cases–but it seems deficient in comparison to the real-life interaction and experience that the congregation creates and allows.

We might also suggest that the elders and pastors of evangelical churches take note of developments like online dating and shepherd, in even a basic way, the romantic culture of their churches. Is clear from books like 1 Corinthians that church leaders like Paul involved themselves in questions of marriage and romance (chapter seven, for example). Paumgarten’s piece helps us to see that ours is simultaneously a sex-crazed but intimacy-lacking world. Can we form a culture of purity that is also a culture of meaningful connection?

Our churches have an opportunity to show the world a better way to marriage. Perhaps, in an isolary, lonely world, we can image, however imperfectly, a greater union, the covenant of love shared between Christ the pursuer and his radiant bride, the church (Ephesians 5).

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This is a post from the blog Thesis.

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Third-Country Nationals and the US Military: A Harrowing Report

A recent story in the New Yorker entitled “The Invisible Army” chronicled problems with a phenomenon most of us have not heard about: third-country nationals who serve our armed forces overseas.  According to Sarah Stillman, workers from economically weak countries are recruited to serve in high-paying jobs in global cities like Dubai.  They enthusiastically sign up, fly to Dubai (at great personal cost), and are then–to their shock–flown to U. S. military bases in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where they work for low wages in great danger.

Stillman explains:

Lydia and Vinnie were unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Filipinos launder soldiers’ uniforms, Kenyans truck frozen steaks and inflatable tents, Bosnians repair electrical grids, and Indians provide iced mocha lattes. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (aafes) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops filled with carved camels and Taliban chess sets, beauty salons where soldiers can receive massages and pedicures, and fast-food courts featuring Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon. (aafes’s motto: “We go where you go.”)

The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases, eat at meagre chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.

Read the whole piece.

Stories like this remind us of 1) injustice in this world, 2) how difficult and uncertain life is for many people worldwide, and 3) how important it is that Christians seek to be light in dark places.  We may not be able to overturn evil in this life–only Jesus can–but we can stand against inhumane practices and minister the gospel to those who suffer, whether in our own towns or cities or on military bases.  The people profiled in this essay are far from home, with little legal recourse and even less voice.  The gospel animates our natural-born instinct to seek justice and mercy on behalf of those who suffer.

(Image: Peter Van Agtmael for TNY)

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The Cornerback Who Was Killed, the SI Writer Who Is a Gordon Grad

Do you read long-form journalism?  You should.  There’s pressure today to make journalism short, to squeeze all such writing into bullet points and text boxes.  Surely there’s a place for that.  But there’s a massive place for journalists who take on a big story and tell it at length with great skill.

Thomas Lake is one of those long-form journalists that you should not miss.  Lake is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, an astonishing post for a man barely thirty years old.  I first noticed Lake’s writing in the April 11, 2011 issue of the magazine in a piece entitled “Bad Nights in the NFL” that covers in great detail the killing of former Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams.  Williams died in a nightclub shooting on New Year’s Day 2007.  The events surrounding his death are complex and have never been explored in all their nuances before Lake’s coverage.

Here is an excerpt from the piece that shows Lake’s ability:

There was a young millionaire in Denver whose white limousine came under gunfire on a snow-lined boulevard in the dark of a winter morning. When the shooting began he had about one minute to live, and he spent that minute surrounded by the tangible signs of his newfound wealth. The black leather seats held nine women in short dresses and fur-trimmed jackets, as well as four rappers from Texas whose T-shirts advertised their collective name: BILLION DOLLA SCHOLARS. But the most dazzling sight in the Hummer limousine was the young millionaire’s gold chain. Dangling from it was a medallion about the size of a compact disc with a white crust of diamonds that spelled the name of his record label, RYNO ENTERTAINMENT; and his nickname, D WILL, short for Darrent Williams, starting right cornerback for the Broncos. The chain was worth about $50,000, and those who had worn it said it felt heavy around the neck. In the last 10 minutes the chain had been lost, then found, and the reasons for that brief disappearance would make the difference between life and death.

Lake is a graduate of Gordon College and, it would certainly appear, an evangelical Christian.  His writing displays both a lyrical quality and a moral conscience.  I was surprised to discover Lake’s background, as I had not heard of him previously.  Since coming upon his moving story about Williams and his needless death, I have read a number of Lake’s pieces and have found them without fail to showcase excellent writing, a storyteller’s sense of drama, and the aforementioned moral sense.  Look for Lake’s writing–those of you who enjoy good sportswriting will find a feast in his material.  Here’s one of his most popular stories–and another.

Good long-form journalism is worth its weight in gold.  This is one of the reasons I love magazines: they allow for this kind of writing.  The New Yorker, the New York Times, Forbes, Fortune–these and many other periodicals allow their writers to compose what are essentially mini-books, or mini-screenplays.  We need to train ourselves to read thoughtful work that unfolds a narrative or an argument at length.  That’s good for us.  By the way, those looking to dive into some of the best long-form writing should go to longform.com.  That’s a great place to start. Here’s another good site, and another.  You won’t agree with everything you find in these links.

Thomas Lake’s writing shows us an example of a Christian who is not only working in public, so to speak, but who is applying his Christian faith in a very meaningful way to his work.  From what I can see, he’s a model for aspiring young Christian journalists, one that the Christian community would do well to notice.

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Dockery’s Summer Reading List, New Yorker on Mike Huckabee, and Weekly Standard on Tea Parties

A Union University grad kindly sent me David Dockery’s summer 2010 reading list.  It’s listed below (in original order) and will be of help to those of us who enjoy little more than a beach towel and a good read.

Let me throw in a couple of quick  comments: the Metaxas book on Bonhoeffer is excellent.  You would not think 550 pages on a German pastor-theologian would read so quickly, but they do.  If this was fiction, they would option it as a movie (it already has been and is).  Though the work does not delve into Bonhoeffer’s theology as much as some would hope, it is a must-buy.

Also, Hunter’s book on the Christian cultural approach is richly stimulating.  Not all of us will agree with everything, but the book cries out to be read by thinking Christians.

TO CHANGE THE WORLD, by James Davison Hunter (Oxford, 2010)

THE ESSENTIAL EDWARDS COLLECTION, by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney (Moody, 2010)

BONHOEFFER: PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH, by Michael Lawrence (Crossway, 2010)

AGAINST ALL GODS: WHAT’S RIGHT AND WRONG ABOUT THE NEW ATHEISM, by Phillip Johnson and John Mark Reynolds (InterVarsity, 2010)

CHRIST AMONG THE DRAGONS: FINDING OUR WAY THROUGH CULTURAL CHALLENGES, by James E. White (InterVarsity, 2010)

GOD AS AUTHOR, by Gene Fant (B&H, 2010)

BAPTISTS THROUGH THE CENTURIES, by David Bebbington (Baylor University Press, 2010)

EDUCATION FOR HUMAN FLOURISHING, by Paul Spears and Steven Loomis (InterVarsity, 2010)

AMERICAN SAINT: FRANCIS ASBURY AND THE METHODISTS, by John Wigger (Oxford, 2009)

THE HOLE IN OUR GOSPEL, by Richard Stearns (Thomas Nelson, 2009)

THE BEST KEPT SECRET OF CHRISTIAN MISSION, by John Dickson (Zondervan, 2010)

SAINT PETER, by Martin Hengel (Eerdmans, 2010)

TRANSFORMATIONAL CHURCH, by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer (B&H, 2010)

THE GREAT COMMISSION RESURGENCE, edited by Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway (B&H, 2010)

REMYTHOLOGIZING THEOLOGY, Kevin Vanhoozer (Cambridge, 2010)

ENCOUNTERING THEOLOGY OF MISSION, by Craig Ott, Stephen Strauss, and Timothy Tennent (Baker, 2010)

THE END OF SECULARISM, by Hunter Baker (Crossway, 2009)

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The New Yorker just published a lengthy profile of Mike Huckabee.

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The Weekly Standard looks into the “populist insurgency” unfolding among American conservatives.

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The New Yorker on Jesus Christ: Messiah as “Dharma Bum” and Crucified Apocalyptist

Adam Gopnik, writer of renown at The New Yorker, has just penned one of the more engrossing cultural pieces on the person and mystery of Jesus Christ that I personally have seen in a good long while.  Entitled “What Did Jesus Do?”, it is rich, rewarding, frustrating, deeply erroneous and a must-read for those who wish to interact with modern intellectual perspective on Jesus.

Because the piece is so weighty, I am going to quote many portions of it.  If you don’t care to read all of this, that makes sense.  But if you are interested in learning a bit more about how a prominent public intellectual thinks about the God-man, read on.  Again, this didn’t run in the Christian Century, but in The New Yorker.

Gopnik looks first at how historical criticism what Jesus said:

They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

Here’s Gopnik’s basic approach to Christianity:

The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith. The more one knows, the less one knows.

The author wonders what exactly it was that made Jesus’ teaching distinctive:

What the amateur reader wants, given the thickets of uncertainty that surround the garden, is not what the passionate polemicists want—not so much a verdict on whether Jesus was nasty or nice as a sense of what, if anything, was new in his preaching. Was the cult that changed the world a product of Paul’s evangelism and imperial circumstance and the military embrace of one miracle-mystery cult among many such around? Or was there really something new, something unheard of, that can help explain the scale of what happened later? Did the rise of Christendom take place because historical plates were moving, with a poor martyred prophet caught between, or did one small pebble of parable and preaching start the avalanche that ended the antique world?

Here’s how the present-day academy approaches the Gospels:

Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century, its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical—including a “mythicist” position that the story is entirely made up—to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough. The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic.

Gopnik blatantly informs us of the supposed fabrications of Scripture:

The odd absences in Mark are matched by the unreal presences in the other Gospels. The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

The following is noteworthy; Gopnik gives us his character sketch of Jesus (really, read the whole thing):

Even if we make allowances for Mark’s cryptic tracery, the human traits of his Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, duelling wit. What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience. He’s no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” he asks the hapless disciples….He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design. A story about a vineyard whose ungrateful husbandmen keep killing the servants sent to them is an anti-establishment, even an anti-clerical story, but it isn’t so obvious as to get him in trouble. The suspicious priests keep trying to catch him out in a declaration of anti-Roman sentiment: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, they ask—that is, do you recognize Roman authority or don’t you? He has a penny brought out, sees the picture of the emperor on it, and, shrugging, says to give to the state everything that rightly belongs to the state. The brilliance of that famous crack is that Jesus turns the question back on the questioner, in mock-innocence. Why, you give the king the king’s things and God God’s. Of course, this leaves open the real question: what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s a tautology designed to evade self-incrimination.

The author examines the morality of Jesus (I found this engrossing as well):

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling. And so with the tale of the boy who wastes his inheritance but gets a feast from his father, while his dutiful brother doesn’t; or the one about the weeping whore who is worthier than her good, prim onlookers; or about the passionate Mary who is better than her hardworking sister Martha. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page.

Gopnik arrestingly traces Jesus’ approach to life and people:

Jesus isn’t a hedonist or an epicurean, but he clearly isn’t an ascetic, either: he feeds the multitudes rather than instructing them how to go without. He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.

The author turns his attention to the nature of God:

In Mark, Jesus’ divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn’t know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic. If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

Gopnik comments on the “twoness” of Christianity:

If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship, though, it’s that Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism. All faiths have fights, but, as MacCulloch shows at intricate, thousand-page length, few have so many super-subtle shadings of dogma: wine or blood, flesh or wafer, one God in three spirits or three Gods in one; a song of children, stables, psalms, parables, and peacemakers, on the one hand, a threnody of suffering, nails, wild dogs, and damnation and risen God, on the other. The two spin around each other throughout history—the remote Pantocrator of Byzantium giving way to the suffering man of the Renaissance, and on and on.

Gopnik offers some words on the cross that will be of interest to participants in the ongoing dialogue about the center of the gospel:

Beyond the words, we still hear that cry. The Passion is still the point. In Mark, Jesus’ arrest and execution feels persuasively less preordained and willed than accidental and horrific. Jesus seems to have an intimation of the circumstance he has found himself in—leading a rebellion against Rome that is not really a rebellion, yet doesn’t really leave any possibility of retreat—and some corner of his soul wants no part of it: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take away this cup from me.”

The author concludes the piece on a very interesting note, suggesting that though scholars disagree strongly on the identity and significance of Christ, there does seem to be something resonant in His message:

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but can’t end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen. The impulse of orthodoxy has always been to suppress the wrangling as a sign of weakness; the impulse of more modern theology is to embrace it as a sign of life. The deeper question is whether the uncertainty at the center mimics the plurality of possibilities essential to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe, or is an antique mystery in a story open only as the tomb is open, with a mystery left inside, never to be entirely explored or explained. With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.

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Clearly, there is a lot to chew on here.  Those of us who are evangelical Christians might well be tempted to pass on a piece like this, writing it off as some unbeliever’s personal take on Jesus.  In one sense, this is true, and I am fundamentally in major disagreement with Gopnik.  In fact, we have essential disagreement on the most important reality in all of life.

On the other hand, it is not necessarily the case that we can’t pick up any insights from unbelievers.  I think we can.  Throughout the piece, mixed in with faulty conclusions and unhelpful generalizations (the Bible’s message, I would contend, is not nearly as mysterious and open-ended as Gopnik emphasizes), are some very rewarding ideas.  It’s valuable to read about the Bible–and Jesus, and the gospel–from the perspective of someone who does not share your theology.  Sometimes they see things that we can’t see.  Thus we should read them, and profit from them where we can.

There is a great deal to work through in this piece.   I think Gopnik has some helpful words on the teaching style, the personality, of Jesus. To put it plainly, Jesus is enigmatic.  He says surprising things.  He sometimes goes the opposite direction from what we would think.  He reformulates existing conceptions of Jesus.

In addition, Gopnik is surely right about the passion of Christ being at the center of Christianity.  This is surely true.  His words on that point bear re-reading, because even as professing Christians disagree on the centrality of the crucifixion, an urbane New Yorker with no professed affinity for substitutionary atonement sees the cross as the centerpiece of the Bible.

Gopnik has another great insight on the nature of Jesus’ mission.  The following could have been written by an evangelical theologian: “He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.”  This is surely right.

In the end, it seems to me that Gopnik gets a good deal right–sometimes movingly so–but also gets a good deal wrong (including central and essential matters).  He buys into critical scholarship on Jesus, even as he seems to realize that there is something ethereal, something majestic about the God-man.  He asks whether Jesus merely popped up at the right moment in history (and thus we find the significance of His person), yet he closes his piece by noting that there may still “tones” that can be heard from the testimony about Jesus.

Gopnik is seeing something, but only as best as one can see without faith.  In reality, Jesus’ mission and message were not enigmatic.  They were not open-ended.  Jesus was not a “dharma bum”, some kind of first-century postmodern essayist, but very wisdom itself.  He was an apocalyptist, but He was also the apocalypse.  He not only spoke of the need to get right with God, but became the very means by which sinners are made right with God.

In the end, I was startled to find a modern intellectual, writing for America’s most avant-garde publication, affirm that the cross “is still the point.”  On this point, Gopnik is right, and profoundly so.  The cross is the point.  Jesus is the messiah.  Salvation is in Him.  He was a great teacher, if a strange one; His legacy is disputed; and yet, as is plainly seen, the pages of Scripture offer, over and over again, from diverse regions and times, the message that God has provided salvation for every man in the form of the Messiah.  Gopnik does not know how right he is.

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Boys and Their Games: How Far Some Men Go to Play Pickup Soccer

For those of you who have the unfortunate fate in life to be linked to a man who loves playing pickup sports (I’m thinking wives here, primarily), this selection might provide some solace.  There is strength in numbers, after all.

It comes at the beginning of a NYT Magazine piece entitled “Vigor Quest” by Tom Dunkel on the lengths to which some older folks are going to keep their bodies young in order to play sports.  That’s a matter deserving consideration.  But you’ll get no such rumination from this little blog.  Instead, I merely wanted to quote this to show that, as many know, men will go to utterly insane lengths to, well, play sports.  If that seems crazy, it’s because it is.  It’s also how things are.  Sorry.

Enough blathering.  Here’s the quotation from the article:

NEARLY EVERY SUNDAY morning — Easter and Mother’s Day included — John Bellizzi says goodbye to his wife, Francesca, grabs an equipment bag and slides into the front seat of his black BMW. He drives to a high-school soccer field about 10 miles from his home in the New York City suburb of Rye.

Bellizzi, who is 51, is a member of the Old Timers Soccer Club, a band of stubborn, aging athletes who refuse to fall under the spell of golf. Technically, these are just pickup games, but they have been happening weekly since the early 1980s. The players go to the trouble of hiring a referee and battle full tilt (think slide tackles and heels-over-head bicycle kicks) for an hour and a half. Many of them were high-school and collegiate stars, decades ago. “One guy had a hip replacement,” Bellizzi, a former soccer captain at Queens College, says. “He was out for a year, then he came back.”

Advil, hot tubs and surgery keep most of the Old Timers going, but Bellizzi has ventured further. Two summers ago he became a patient of Dr. Florence Comite, a Manhattan endocrinologist affiliated with Cenegenics Medical Institute. Cenegenics, a privately held company based in Las Vegas, claims to have 10,000 patients and annual revenue of $50 million, making it the country’s foremost purveyor of so-called age-management medicine.

I certainly don’t endorse what the article’s subject is doing to keep his body young (it seems quite dangerous and untested), but I did find it amusing that he loves soccer so much that he will spend tens of thousands of dollars just to improve his performance in pickup games.  Those of us who creak and groan our way through our weekly pickup games (at TEDS it’s Friday morning at 8am every week, rain or sun) can only dream of such enhancement.  Our wives can celebrate that no such improvement will happen.

Here’s another article about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and how he plays pickup ball (and here’s one I’ve linked to before).  I have some significant ideological differences with Duncan and other current members of the Administration, but I have to say, the amount of pickup basketball Obama, Duncan and others play is positively inspiring (to men–not necessarily to long-suffering wives!).

(Image: Henry Leutwyler for The New York Times)

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The Link 8.1.09: Horrible Athlete Rappers, Good Christian Rappers, and Kindles

shaq1. From ESPN Page 2’s DJ Gallo, a hilarious rundown of some of the worst rap lyrics written by athletes.  Said one Shaquille O’Neal: “Forget Tony Danza, I’m the boss/When it comes to money, I’m like Dick Butkus”.  Huh? 

2. Meanwhile, at the Legacy conference being held at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, there’s some legit rapping going on (still going on tonight–check it out). 

I should know–I was there last night and heard Trip Lee, Flame, and Lecrae.  I also met Odd Thomas (who kindly gave me his cd, which is good, particularly “Father Figure Skating”) and talked a bit with Propaganda.  The conference was run by a local Christian rap collective that features Katalyst and Decipha–both talented and really good guys.  Check their stuff out.

3. While we’re on the rapping thing, a classic selection: Kobe Bryant and Tyra Banks perform “K.O.B.E.”  I am not making this up.  Yes, it is as strange you might think.  The part where Kobe raps in Italian and the crowd goes totally quiet is one of the more awkward (and hilarious) public moments I’ve seen.

4. 20 ways to waste your money by a Kiplinger’s writer.  Very helpful.  This will help families (and singles) with budgeting.  Also, here’s a list of “fabulous freebies” by Kiplinger’s.  Good stuff. 

5. My buddy Reid Monaghan, a careful thinker and gifted communicator, nicely handles the subject of cussing and speech from a biblical perspective.

6. You should really watch this.  It’s a riotous take on the “Super Bowl Shuffle” by some kind of foodstore made about two decades ago.  The old man who raps at around the one minute mark is outrageously funny.  People of the present who rap: think before you embarrass yourself on the mic.

7. Thinking about the Kindle?  This analysis of it by The New Yorker will make you think.

8. A fun take on the universal health care plan currently being debated by our national politicians.

–Whew.  That’s all for now.  Have fun with this, and remember–be careful where and when you rap.  Have a great weekend, all.

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Cinnabons, “Conditioned Hypereating”, and Christian Faith

fatwomanNew Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert has just published Why Are Americans Fat?, a fun and somewhat morbid review essay of a number of recent books that tackle the national and international obesity epidemic.  Here are some selections from the essay, followed by a few comments from me. (Picture: New Yorker)

The state of the matter:

“During the nineteen-eighties, the American gut, instead of expanding very gradually, had ballooned: 33.3 per cent of adults now qualified as overweight….she and her colleagues checked and rechecked the figures. There was no problem that they could identify. Finally, in 1994, they published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In just ten years, they showed, Americans had collectively gained more than a billion pounds. “If this was about tuberculosis, it would be called an epidemic,” another researcher wrote in an editorial accompanying the report.”

Dramatic weight gains in the last thirty years:

“Men are now on average seventeen pounds heavier than they were in the late seventies, and for women that figure is even higher: nineteen pounds. The proportion of overweight children, age six to eleven, has more than doubled, while the proportion of overweight adolescents, age twelve to nineteen, has more than tripled.”

Coke instead of water=15 extra pounds per year:

“For most people, an ice cold Coca-Cola used to be a treat reserved for special occasions,” Finkelstein observes. Today, soft drinks account for about seven per cent of all the calories ingested in the United States, making them “the number one food consumed in the American diet.” If, instead of sweetened beverages, the average American drank water, Finkelstein calculates, he or she would weigh fifteen pounds less.”

Cinnabon and Starbucks breed “conditioned hypereating”:

“Kessler invents his own term—“conditioned hypereating”—to describe how people respond to these laboratory-designed concoctions. Foods like Cinnabons and Starbucks’ Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos are, he maintains, like drugs: “Conditioned hypereating works the same way as other ‘stimulus response’ disorders in which reward is involved, such as compulsive gambling and substance abuse.” For Kessler, the analogy is not merely rhetorical: research on rats, he maintains, proves that the animals’ brains react to sweet, fatty foods the same way that addicts’ respond to cocaine.”

People foolishly depend on portion sizes to gauge how much to eat:

“The elasticity of the human appetite is the subject of Brian Wansink’s “Mindless Eating” (2006). Wansink is the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, and he has performed all sorts of experiments to test how much people will eat under varying circumstances. These have convinced him that people are—to put it politely—rather dim. They have no idea how much they want to eat or, once they have eaten, how much they’ve consumed. Instead, they rely on external cues, like portion size, to tell them when to stop. The result is that as French-fry bags get bigger, so, too, do French-fry eaters.”

****************************

Wow.  That’s a lot of information to sift through and think about.  Go ahead and read the whole piece, or The Fattening of America for more depressing and illuminating research.  Here are my quick thoughts on the matter:

1. Obesity and fatness is a spiritual problem.  To speak strongly, there is no good reason to be fat or even overweight.  (Some medical conditions cause weight gain, but I’m not dealing with those, even as the above article is not.)

2. Obesity and fatness relate very closely to discipline.  If you are a disciplined person and thus practice a formative spiritual duty, then you should be able to discipline your appetite.

3. One’s weight and health relate closely to one’s spiritual health.  Lack of control over weight and health (within reason) reveals spiritual weakness and sin.

4. Gluttony is not good.  It is abhorrently evil.  This in contrast to what our culture–especially marketing–tells us.  Gluttony is no small thing.  We should not treat it as such.

5. It makes no sense to treat your body poorly.  There is no good reason to overeat and eat foolishly.  No good argument can be made on this point.  Eating badly and failing to exercise only brings harm.

6. It makes tremendous sense to treat your body well.  Christians have a particular argument here.  We steward all things the Lord gives us.  Our health represents a massive stewardship area (no pun intended, I swear).  If we do not steward our bodies well, we dishonor God.  And we also cut short our opportunities to serve the Lord on this earth.

7. Without being grim, avoid excusing unwise behavior with jokes, cover-ups, and half-hearted arguments.  This is hugely common, and helps to send many of us to an early grave.  Be honest about your weight, just as you would in any area of your life.  Weight/health is not cordoned off from holiness.  It does not get a pass.  It is as involved with your holiness as your media consumption is.  Do not laugh off your gluttony or laziness.  Like all sin, these things aren’t funny–and neither are unnecessary health problems.

8. Guys: eat lots of vegetables and fruit.  Many guys are dumb.  They eat a burger four times a week for lunch and swear off vegetables and fruit.  This is colossally stupid, and it’s a key factor in many heart attacks and serious health problems.  Yes, we all know people who ate horribly and lived to be 100, but we also know many who lived foolishly and died young.  Vegetables and fruits are really good for you.  So don’t be stupid–you’re not metro for eating a salad, you’re wise.  No one is impressed with your excessive burger consumption, least of all the grandchildren who won’t get to see you!

9. Ladies: eat less snacks.  What I’ve just written is way more than most people will say on this point.  We’re all much too polite for our own good.  Ladies, if snacks are a problem, don’t buy them.  If desserts are a problem, don’t make them.  Contra pop culture, you don’t need to look like a model–but neither do you need to struggle for years and years with weight.

10. Don’t treat weight in hyper-sensitive terms. Weight is a tough issue for lots of people.  Work hard not to make it an issue that you’re so sensitive about that people cannot bring spiritual challenge and counsel to you.  That’s a very unhealthy place to be.  No area of our lives should be outside of the bounds of spiritual and theological examination and rebuke.

That’s enough for now.  There are times and exceptions for principles like these (vacation, for example), and one needs to be balanced and not obsessive about body and image.  But if you remember one thing from this piece, remember this: weight is a spiritual issue.  The care of your body is one of the most significant stewardship opportunities given you by the Lord.  In a way that many of us think little about, the way we eat speaks profoundly of the way we think of Christ.

If we think much of the lives He has given us, and much of the opportunity before us to magnify His name, and much of His fundamentally self-sacrificing nature, we can’t help but concern ourselves with our weight and health, even as people everywhere around us eat themselves into the grave.

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