While You’re Signing That Change.org Petition, Don’t Forget to Look Up From Your iPhone

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 10.10.58 AMMy friend Karen Swallow Prior has an award-winning essay up at Christianity Today’s This is Our City project called “How I Learned to Love my Literal Neighbor.” I told her it reminded me of this old Peanuts strip:

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Here’s just a taste of Karen’s essay:

“Both of us had been raised in the country, in fact. So living on a lot the size of a postage stamp in a sea of mass-produced buildings stacked up against each other—even the small variations in architectural details followed a pattern—had never been our style. But it was a place to rest our heads during those busy, building years of our marriage. I was teaching and working on my doctorate while my husband traveled, playing music on the regional church-coffeehouse circuit. We weren’t home much.

As committed Christians, we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan. We understood that the people whom my husband played for, my peers at the university, the students I taught, those we met through church and volunteer activities, and the strangers we ministered to on overseas mission trips were all our neighbors.”

But we were so busy loving our parabolic neighbors that we had neglected the literal ones.

And she goes on to tell the story of how she grew to love her (literal) neighbors, including an (adorable) little boy who

“likes to help me do my barn chores. He uses his own manure fork, which he requested for Christmas, to help me muck stalls. He likes to check for eggs in the henhouse and proudly carries home the ones he finds. His mother says he gets upset if anyone else eats “his” eggs. Sometimes, she says, he waits out on the back deck of their house, watching for me to come out to the barn to do the evening chores. When he sees me, he hollers for me by name. And I respond in kind.”

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 1.00.23 PMRead it all here. And follow Karen on Twitter while you’re at it: @lovelifelitGod

Translating Christian Cliches: What People Say v. What They (Might) Mean

Don’t read me wrong: I’m not saying that if you have said some of the things that appear in the right-hand column, you clearly meant what is made explicit in the left-hand column. Not at all. But as my friend Karen Swallow Prior wrote a few years ago:

“The trouble with prefabricated words is that they don’t require or encourage much thinking. Yes, clichés contain truth; that’s why they are used so much. But familiarity can turn even truthful words into vain repetitions.”

That, and sometimes it’s just really tempting to use spiritual-sounding language to either:

a. Avoid taking responsibility for what you actually think and feel by passing that off to God

or

b. Discourage the other person from disagreeing with you by tacitly implying that God is on your side.

My dad came up with this first one, which may be the worst one:

#1: “I love you (or them) in the Lord.

Meaning1My friend Marlena wrote about Christian dating myths, and quick polling of young men indicates that #2 is used frequently enough (probably in accordance with a. above: avoiding responsibility for your own feelings):

Meaning2Oh, and #3. Number three is probably used just as frequently in secular or other religious contexts outside Christendom, falling into the category of “in my day, they never cancelled school” and “our kids never whined” boasting. But it is worse, because it can imply some sort of spiritual superiority, or hurtfully insinuate that the reason the person is hurting is that he/she lacks sufficient faith. (See also: “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting.”)

This is not to say that you should not share your own stories of difficult times and your experience of God helping you through those times. Those can be very helpful stories. But be aware of your motivations in telling them–and be sure that you have first listened to your friend.

Meaning3

Finally, #4: the God cop-out. It’s like “I’ll think about it…” but with a spiritual twist, and often pops out of our mouths when we’re afraid to JUST SAY NO:

Meaning4Because then, if we decide we don’t want to do it, we can just blame God.

What are some other cliches–and their translations–that grate upon your senses?

{You may also like “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting”; “Click ‘Like’ and Share if You Love Jesus & Other Abominations,” and “Seven Deadly Social Media Sins.”}

Expansive, holistic, humble, humane…

Karen Swallow Prior has a review of my book up at Flourish, an online magazine that I began writing for ‘way back when, edited by Rusty Pritchard, who edited my first-ever published piece in Creation Care magazine. My most recent contribution to Flourish (which, gee, is no longer very ‘recent’) is a piece on goats giving birth.

Here’s a bit of Karen’s review:

I don’t read a lot of “how-to” books. I read even fewer “foodie” books. Too formulaic, too tunnel-visioned, too promissory, too pedantic.

Not so Rachel Stone’s newly-released Eat With Joy. Stone’s approach to “how to” eat joyfully is expansive, holistic, humble, and humane.  It’s not about food rules, but about food freedom.

And it’s no mere feel-good fluff.  Stone has experienced for herself the rule-bound approach to eating, having been, like far too many in our food-sick society, imprisoned once by the shackles of an eating disorder. But now Stone approaches matters of food with the experience that comes with feeding a young family, the wisdom found in well-examined scriptures, and the joy that flows from redemptive eating. While Stone’s writing style is conversational and engaging, her exhortations and insights are substantive, bolstered by biblical teaching, sound theology, and authoritative sources (who include Richard Bauckham, Marilynne Robinson, and Michael Pollan)—interwoven with illustrative examples from popular culture.

{Read the rest here.}

Reading Classics With Kids (Even as Comic Books)

My dad told me about a series of comic books that were available when he was young—comics based on the plots of books commonly assigned to schoolchildren, which served as CliffNotes in those pre-Internet days when plagiarism generally meant that you copied either from a classmate or from the saved papers of students a year or two ahead of you. I’ve never actually seen one of those comic books, but I always liked the idea of them, even though I’ve pretty much always been the sort of student who reads the book.

(Except for The Martian Chronicles, which was assigned in 9th grade and which I simply did not read.)

Yet even though I’m generally a fan of reading the whole, real book before seeing the movie (or taking the exam)—I read, and loved, an unabridged translation of Les Miserables as a teenager—I’ve discovered that shortened and child-friendly adaptations of classic books can be very good things. I mean, I’m no expert in reading instruction or in child development or in anything else in particular, come to think of it, but there is something about allowing children to absorb great stories, even in a sketched-out form, that seems to be pretty powerful.

A few years ago, my husband started telling the children a child-friendly version of The Lord of the Rings, and they continue to ‘play the story’ in Lego and out in the yard, mulling over the endurance of Frodo, the faithfulness of Sam, the pitiable nature of Gollum, and the dangerous allure of the ring of power. About a year ago, my father read them a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, took them to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, and watched the classic film (with Gregory Peck). Again, the story figures into their thinking and playing still.

And recently, I read them a children’s version of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving works of literature in (Old) English. They could hardly wait for each successive chapter, and they cried real tears over the death of the old knight Beowulf. Don’t tell them I told you that.

Graeme's version of Beowulf v. Grendel
Graeme’s version of Beowulf v. Grendel

This is not at all to slight classic children’s literature, which I also love (I cried reading Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter on Charlotte’s Web in her literary memoir Booked), but only to say that even as children can absorb stories from the Bible in simplified form long before they can understand theology or read passages from the Good Book itself, they can meaningfully encounter great stories in ways that open up their imagination and creativity long before they’re ready to read Melville—and even if they’re never ready to read Melville.

In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wrote that one way to know you’ve encountered ‘myth’ (by which he meant not not true but rather a transcendently powerful story) when even reading the bare bones of the plot moves you in some way, or, in his words, a myth has “value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” I think that when my children take little child-sized bites of Beowulf, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, it begins to open up the back of the wardrobe.

Evangelicals Divided Over NYC’s Move Toward Government-Funded Rat Contraceptives

The National Institutes of Health has just given the company Senestech a grant of $1.1 million as its owner, Loretta Mayer, works to figure out a way to get New York City subway rats on the Pill. Subway rats, says Mayer, can find solid food easily, but are constantly on the search for liquids. Paul Jones, the manager of NYC transportation authority trash disposal, notes that rats, like most New Yorkers, crave caffeine; their favorite drinks, according to Jones, include Red Bull and (what else?) lattes. Soon there’ll be something else on the menu of the underground cafés that are the subway system: birth control smoothies. Mayer’s company is tweaking the formula to appeal to New York rats’ palates; while Asian rats have taken their birth control with shots of roasted coconut, dried fish, and beer, New York City rats seem to prefer pepperoni.

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It has set off a firestorm of controversy, coming in the wake of Mayor Bloomberg’s unsuccessful shame-campaign against underground rat pregnancies. One poster shows a hairless rat pup, its face contorted with grief, with the caption, “I’m six times more likely to get crushed by the 7 train because you had me in the subway!” Other rat constituents expressed frustration over the proposed bans on sweet beverages larger than 16 ounces. “That Bloomberg,” fumed one midtown rat, “does he even realize that by cutting into the humans’ freedom to super-size, he stops that trickle-down by which we rats survive?”

Handed down from City Hall, the rat contraceptive mandate has ignited even more ire from many different quarters. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York condemned the move, and many prominent evangelical rats have joined them–as Amy Frykholm points out in the Christian Century, evangelical rats appear to be “more in tune with Catholic teaching than Catholics rats are.” Many have declared it a question of religious liberty. “Health officials in China have been giving rats food-flavored birth control pills for years, and Joe Biden actually sympathizes with this campaign of forced sterilization,” says one evangelical leader who asked that he not be named. “Is this really the model we want to follow?”

“The effective separation of rat sex from rat procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age—and one of the most ominous,” says Albert Mohler, president of the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention. The New York Times quoted Mohler warning evangelical rats to be wary of the “contraceptive culture,” which regards baby rats as “impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.” Mohler insists that people and rats of conscience must protect the freedom of rats follow the command—or blessing—in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.”

Meanwhile, there’s another issue that many people of faith haven’t considered: the fact that the rat contraceptives may, in fact, prevent a fertilized egg—a tiny rat embryo—from implanting in the mother rat’s uterus, meaning that what’s happening looks to some more like an early abortion than contraception. This potentially ‘abortifacient’ effect bothers the consciences of many, who insist that the difference between contraception and abortifacient is crucial: “It’s an important distinction, both linguistically and scientifically,” says Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University and a contributor to both the Atlantic and Christianity Today, who also serves on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States: “Whatever ambiguities persist around the rat birth control smoothie in its various flavors, it’s time to start facing them honestly,” she wrote in The Atlantic.

While most evangelicals are at least able to agree upon condoms as a morally licit choice in family planning, male rats are not eager to accept them, complaining that the barrier method interferes with intimacy. Enter Bill Gates, who recently announced a startup grant of $100,000 to the person who designs “the next generation rat condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure” and promotes “regular use.” If successful, the measure would not only prevent unintended rat pregnancies, but also help prevent the spread of infection.

Still, people of faith are divided. While some evangelicals are weighing the possible merits of making contraceptives available even to unmarried rats, others, like Matthew Lee Anderson, argue that the move would be a concession that evangelicals should simply not be willing to make, suggesting that it moves against a “consistent biblical ethic of sexuality”; this puts him at odds with the National Association of Evangelicals, which stated that “while we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality among rats [,] we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College, agrees: “Churches discussing contraception with single rats isn’t about giving up. It’s about being in a relationship with them.”

Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, simply urges more Christian rats to move into the city in order to be a part of shaping rat culture. “We must love the rats of our cities,” he said, “because in the cities you can influence the rats that have the most impact on the world; the rats that shape culture.” Perhaps that is the most hopeful way forward—through loving engagement and honest dialogue over pepperoni (or coconut and dried fish) smoothies—whatever our various convictions on contraception, or the politics and policies surrounding it.