The Humanities Are Not Dead

In recent years the humanities have been the Phoenix Suns; the Miami Marlins; the Arizona Cardinals; the Theresa May; the Sears, Roebuck, and Company, of the academy.

Science sexy. Technology steamy. Data analysis super hot. Religion, art history, English literature, philosophy, decidedly unsexy.

Partially due to the escalating costs of a university education, “What is the ROI—return on investment?” has replaced universal questions about the purposes of life and a life well lived that are the lifeblood of the humanities.

That is the context in which I read this Kara Swisher New York Times commentary titled “Is This the End of the Age of Apple?

Swisher touches upon Apple’s recent struggles and asks:

“Where is the next great boom of innovation going to come from, when even the strongest brands and products might not be sure things anymore?”

She contends:

“Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.”

She concludes by imploring:

“We need the next wave of innovation, and we need it now.”

Only if we concede to our President that everything is transactional and deem the humanities completely irrelevant, should we conclude we’re stumbling in the dark because a high profile technology company is struggling. As I write, Swisher has inspired 1,105 comments.

Dig the top rated one, as determined by New York Times readers, by “Childofsol” who resides in Alaska:

“No. What we definitely do not need is more technological innovation in the world of things. How about this: What would truly be innovative, is to develop an economy that isn’t based on endless growth and the mindless consumption that endless growth entails. We need to become a country that values its citizens, as evidenced by clean air and water, the right to health care, and the right to retirement security. A culture which reverses its headlong rush into ever-faster everything, and celebrates the art of living in harmony with the environment which supports us. That’s the kind of innovation we could use more of.”

Or the silver medal comment by “Berk” in Northern California:

“’Where is that next spark that will light us all up?’” A fantastic, memorable vacation? A good story? A great meal with friends? A walk in the woods on a crisp fall day? Experiences, not things.”

All of the top rated comments are similar. Clearly, if we can generalize from New York Times readers even a little, there’s serious skepticism about mindless technology. And a longing for some semblance of balance where the humanities rise from the mat before the quants hurriedly count to eight and declare a technical knockout.

That is heartening.

 

 

Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier Than The Nonreligious

From Ruth Whippman in America the Anxious:

“Almost all the studies show that religious people tend to have a greater number of social ties and stronger and more supportive communities. When the studies control for the increased levels of social connection, the link between religion and happiness almost always disappears.”

This is my fav positive psychology book. The one I’d recommend to someone brand new to the subject. I dig Whippman’s skepticism, insights, journalistic bent, and British wit. Only complaint, she could use some working class friends.

Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.

Feminism and Church Patriarchy

I was too young during the Civil Rights movement to appreciate the participants’ sacrifices and accomplishments firsthand. We’re in the midst of another, admittedly more subtle, radical social transformation.

The U.S. is tilting left, in large part because younger voters are more liberal on a host of social issues including gay marriage, women’s rights, immigration, gun control, and legalizing marijuana.  As one especially illuminating example of this transformation, read not-so-young Republican Senator Rob Portman’s explanation of why he now supports gay marriage.

The key word in the previous paragraph was “tilting” as in 55%. There’s still a Grand Canyon-like partisan divide on social issues. Case in point, Portman is getting ripped by the Right for abandoning conservative biblical principles and by the Left for a too little too late conversion.

This is what I was thinking about in church Sunday when Melinda, our twenty-something year-old intern, started her sermon, a history of St. Patrick, and what his life might mean for our church today. It was excellent. I drifted as always, but more purposefully. I was fast forwarding, thinking about how bright her pastoral future is. I was picturing her taking future calls and serving a series of churches extremely well. A life spent modeling the gospel; providing spiritual counseling; teaching and preaching; rallying people to serve those in need; thoughtfully baptizing, marrying, and burying the young and old; and the community and larger Church, being better for it.

And then I thought about a religious organization that’s been in the news a lot lately as a result of a change in leadership. And how, despite accelerating social change in the U.S., that religious organization is passing on thousands of Melinda’s the world over every year. How, I wonder, does any institution in the 21st Century take a pass on the leadership potential of half its members?

Also listening to Melinda was our district’s congressman who flies home every weekend to see his wife. Looking at him made me wonder, what if Congress passed on the leadership of half the population? What if schools of medicine did? Or your workplace? What if (fill in the group or institution of your choice) did?

How do my feminist friends, both male and female deal with the church’s patriarchy? That’s only one of my many questions about the Church in the news. My friends would undoubtedly say that’s just one of a long list of unresolved challenges facing the Church. They oppose the Church’s official stands on a litany of issues, but remain committed to it.

How does that work? Does religious tradition trump discordant hearts and minds? How does it hold together?

One True Religion?

Indulge me while I paint with a broad brush. Most people are either religious or non-religious. Among the religious, quite a few believe their religion is the one true religion. Consequently, those outside their tradition are unsaved or infidels and doomed to eternal damnation.

This “zero-sum, sheeps and goats” line of religious thinking might make a modicum of sense if there was a genuine free-market of religious ideas from which each adult chose once they had considered a wide-ranging smorgasbord. A grand religious meritocracy if you will where the most enlightened, hopeful, helpful religions would probably hold claim to the most adherents.

But that’s not even close to how religious people “choose their religion”. People’s religious choices are mostly the result of where they’re born. And I don’t know about you, but I had no control over where I was born (shout out to my faithful following in Boise, ID). Born in Northern Nigeria, one’s almost certainly a Moslem; Southern Nigeria, a Christian; central India, a Hindu; Israel, a Jew; Alabama, a Southern Baptist: Utah, a Mormon. In fact, do people choose their religion or does their family’s religion or the predominant religion where they grow up tend to choose them?

If religious identities are rooted in geography and culture, “zero-sum, sheep and goat, mine is the one true religion” belief only makes sense if some countries and cultures are special, divinely created, better than the rest. And why trust anyone who believes they won the birthplace lottery of life about religion or anything else?

Related recommendation.

Young, Devout, Maligned

Adults routinely trivialize, and in some cases derogate, young people’s religious values, beliefs, and practices. It’s wrong and it should stop.

Exhibit A. Slate Magazine’s Tom Scocca’s recent anti-Joel Northrup screed. Northrup is the homeschooled Iowa wrestler who two weeks ago chose to forfeit his state tournament wrestling match because he didn’t want to compete against a female.

Here’s what Northrup said about his decision not to wrestle. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most high school sports in Iowa.”

And here’s Scocca’s unbelievable Slate Magazine response.

Iowa Wrestler Won’t Wrestle a Girl Because His Parents Are Raising Him to Be Self-ImportantPosted Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:08 PM | By Tom Scocca
Joel Northrup, a 112-pound high school wrestler in Iowa, decided to lose his first match in the state tournament by default rather than compete against a female opponent, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup wrestles, or sometimes chooses to refuse to wrestle, for the Linn-Mar High School Lions, although he does not attend Linn-Mar High School. He is home-schooled by his parents, but Iowa allows homeschoolers to participate in varsity athletics.Having been given the chance to take part in the Linn-Mar athletic program, Northrup and his parents decided to use the public school as a platform for their beliefs about the role of women. In a statement, Northrup wrote:”[W]restling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other High School sports in Iowa.”The passive voice—”I have been placed in a situation”—is appropriate, narrowly. Northrup’s father, Jamie Northrup, said the family helped the son make the decision. (The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against “gender confusion”; he is also a “volunteer chaplain with the United States Army,” where presumably issues about women’s exposure to violence and combat never come up.)One easy way to have avoided the situation would have been for the Northrups to really stand by their beliefs and let high school sports be played by people who go to high school. Out of all the students who attend Linn-Mar, there might be a 112-pounder who would be willing to go to states and wrestle a girl, rather than sticking the team with a default loss.

But entitlement means never having to sacrifice anything. The Northrups were too good or too godly for high school, but they weren’t too good for high school sports, until high school sports turned out to include gender equality, at which point they wanted to drop out again. Once the high school athletic system gave him a suitably male consolation-round opponent, Joel Northrup went back to being a participant.

It’s like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish students who sued Yale in the ’90s because they wanted to go the university but be segregated from the opposite sex. Either turn your back on the sinful world and its rights for women, or don’t. Society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race is not there to be your waiter. If you want to be a wrestler, wrestle your draw.

Scocca pretends to know Joel Northrup’s family because he can’t wrap his head around the fact that he is a deeply religious adolescent. In Scocca’s mind I suspect, that’s only explainable as a result of indoctrination. Also, it’s important to Scocca that his readers know “The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against ‘gender confusion'”. Guilty by association of politics unacceptable to Scocca in the same way the right ripped Obama for his former pastor’s extremist views.

And who does Northrup think he is opting out of public schooling? In the end, how dare he act on his religious convictions in a way that is antithetical to Scocca’s politics.

Scocca needs to take to heart his last two sentences and Stephen Bates’s brilliant book, Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, The Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. Bates’s book makes it crystal clear that society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race isn’t there to be Scocca’s waiter.

Scocca, if you want to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy, learn to accept the byproducts of diversity including conservative religious and political behavior.

I’m sure my politics are more closely aligned to Scocca’s than Northrups, but I’m inspired by the fact that Northup had the courage of his conservative religious convictions. The wrap on teenage boys is that all they do is sit around and play video games while girls excel all around them. So forgive me if I find it refreshing that one of those maligned teenaged boys simply and courageously acted on his beliefs when he knew he’d be criticized for it. Scocca is afraid of conservative religious behavior. I’m find apathy far more threatening.

Granted, as the documentary Jesus Camp poignantly illustrated, some young people are indoctrinated by adults. Others simply conform to a strict religious family culture that they’re born into. I understand respectfully challenging those adolescents’ beliefs, but many young people seek spiritual meaning and choose religious practices relatively independently. In particular, journalists and other media continue to demonstrate an utter lack of sophistication by unfairly lumping all of these religious young people together.

Give me a whole generation of Joel Northrups and Ronnie Hasties and I’ll be even more bullish about our future. Hastie was the Tumwater High School junior running back who was penalized for extending his right arm and pointing his index finger upward after scoring a touchdown in a Washington State playoff game last fall (thus delaying the game a few seconds).

“It’s my way of giving glory to God, not to myself,” he explained. “I want to give God the credit.” Someone hold Scocca back.

What was lost in the Hastie story was what happened in the subsequent week. Hastie’s coach explained that Hastie didn’t want to jeopardize the team so he decided to kneel on the sidelines afterwards. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,” Hastie said.

And yet, rest assured, many adults will continue to make a big negative deal out of youthful piety.

The Great Church Disconnect 1

Some numbers. 67% of Americans think religion is losing influence. In 1987, there were 5.3 million people divided among 11,000 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). At the end of 2009, there were 4.5 million in 10,348 churches. Since 2003, throughout the ELCA’s congregations, average weekly attendance has fallen from 144 to 131 people.

Why?

Here’s a New York-area religion reporter’s thoughts:

“I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading theTimes. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say ‘We missed you’?”

The ELCA church my family attends is a snapshot of the “graying of America”. I would guess the average age of people in our congregation is close to 60. There are few young families and fewer people than when we first started attending seven or so years ago.

Our church, our synod, and the ELCA are failing to connect with people in compelling ways, especially culturally diverse young and middle-aged people. Our synod’s percentage of “members of color” has exploded from 2.3% to 3.9% since 2003. Too few people are asking why the church is failing to connect with people of color in particular.

I think the religion reporter is discounting “worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music” far too quickly. On the surface they may not seem fundamental, but words—spoken in sermons and sung in worship—are symbolic of a worldview that does or doesn’t challenge and inspire people in meaningful, compelling ways. And the Sunday service is the center of the church week and the sermon is the center of the service.

Increasingly, ELCA preaching strikes me as problematic and may in part explain the church’s decline. What’s most fascinating about the preaching problem is it’s larger than any one person or ministry team, it’s a pervasive culture whose norms I suspect are learned first and most significantly in seminary. It doesn’t matter which of the 10,338 ELCA churches you attend next Sunday, you’re likely to hear a very similar sermon that I would characterize as unceasingly literary, vague, and forgettable. To be continued.