Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Relationships (Part 5) - Pacing Physical Intimacy as an Act of Effective Hedonism

The talk is tonight[1], so here’s one last brief post for in this series…and I have saved the most bombastic [2] for last.

Here’s my thesis…

Pacing physical intimacy in a romantic relationship is an act of hedonism. [3]

Rushing physical intimacy seems like the hedonistic thing to do, but it is actually a pleasure miscalculation.

It’s a hedonism fail.

Here’s how I figure. By delaying each stage of physical intimacy, you get more out of each one. Holding hands is not quite as magical if you are kissing, [4] and kissing loses some of its allure when the cloths come off. So postponing physical connection maximizes physical enjoyment on a mulit-year time scale.

If hedonism is the intentional pursuit of maximum pleasure, postponing physical intimacy is the hedonistic thing to do…it generates the most pleasure from each progressive stage of connection. Rushing physical intimacy prematurely short-circuits reservoirs of romantic enjoyment that cannot be revisited. Christians seem prudish by advocating physical restraint, but actually, we believe it will maximize sexual enjoyment.

It is popular to advocate that single Christians who are observing the classical sexual ethic are ‘sexually frustrated’ [5] or that their relationships are seething with ‘sexual tension.’ But those who embrace the life stage for what it is worth, enjoy a season of ‘sexual anticipation’ that produces a qualitatively different kind of enjoyment than consummated attraction…which can never be re-captured.

[1] CL starts at 8:00 in Geit 1001…a couple of cool students even made a fun promotional video.
[2] My brother says that I am definitionally a liberal because I am comfortable auditioning experimental ideas and seeing where they take me.  Well if my real life is where I audition ideas, my blog is casting call.  To say some of the theses I assert are experimental would be an understatement. 
[3] I had a professor for Western Civ in undergrad who told us his grading rules were “if I read your thesis and believe it, you are starting with a B and can only go down…but if I read your thesis and think ‘no way’ you’ve got a shot at an A.” Since then, I have been drawn to the bombastic thesis statement.
[4] e.g. That scene in the latest Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy Helps Elizabeth into the carriage, and touches her hand for the first time, and as he walks away, is obviously affected by that simple touch.
[5] Yes, some of the Tebow jokes have been funny…but they demonstrate the standard reaction to this choice.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Relationships (Part 4) - A Sexual Snapshot of Campus Life: Donna Freitas’ Sex and the Soul

It has been a few years since I lived in the dorms. So I always question whether my perceptions of campus life, acquired over a decade ago at a small, academically rigorous school in western NY still calibrate. In particular, I wondered if my perceptions of the sexual [1] social contracts that dictate campus life comport with my assumptions. But how would you even test something like that.

Fortunately it has been done for me.

Donna Freitas collected 2,500 narrative surveys from seven different campuses and conducted 111 in depth follow up interviews. Results were reported in the very readable Sex and the Soul.

In particular, I wanted to leverage these data to test two hypotheses I had about the sexual landscape of most college campuses, namely:

1. Students are not finding hookup culture fulfilling. And
2. There is much less sex going on than most students think there is.

The research weighed in definitively on both of these hypotheses and then provided two, unanticipated insights, that I thought were worth sharing

Hypothesis 1: Students are not finding hookup culture fulfilling.

This may have been the overwhelming finding of Freitas research. Many women feel trapped in the hookup culture and a surprising number of men, admitted that they wish it was substantially different.

“In public, women maintain a lax attitude about no-strings-attached hookups, but in private, they express ambivalence and even dismay that they allow themselves to be pressure into sexual behaviors that often make them feel used an unhappy.” 99

“When pressed, few students express a desire to hook up randomly on a regular basis – though most accept that hookups are the most likely way to find a long-term romantic partner…and even greater number wish for more respect and awe about sex from their peers.” 156 [2]

Hypothesis 2: There is much less sex going on than most students think there is.

There is this perception that college is the place where everyone has their best and most frequent sex of their lives, and the college years are a scramble to have those experiences before you reluctantly capitulate to the dull sexlessness of marriage. But the people I knew who were actively seeking out sex in college, weren’t doing a whole lot better at having sex than my celibate friends and I were. I’ve always kind of believed that there is a whole lot less sex going on then everyone thinks there is. Freitas’ research confirmed this hypothesis as well. Apart from a couple ‘alpha-males’ it seems most people think that everyone else is having all the great and frequent sex.

“Students typically perceive hooking up as a social norm at college, even if their personal ‘numbers’ are rather low.” 14

Most students admitted to hooking up (a term with semantic range that may or may not involve intercourse) once or twice a semester.

I have this theory about why the sex-ratios in campus ministries (like the one I serve in) are so unbalanced (i.e. there are way more women than men). It is an economic argument (like Starks’ explanation of sex-imbalance in the Church in the Roman empire). The idea is that men are the power players in the economics of college sex. Therefore, in the (relatively) chaste Christian culture, women can find refuge from this kind of degrading objectification…but the cost is simply too high for the men. But, if it is true that most students are hooking up a couple times a quarter, then what are guys really ‘giving up’ by forgoing ‘the college experience’. 8-16 sexual encounters – many of which are just making out or oral sex (which Freitas includes in the definition of ‘hooking up’). So, intercourse with 4-10 women (and according to Freitas statistics, about half will be sober)? You are going to trade in on the experience of robust Christian community for that? Considering that in the first 10 years of a good marriage you will have sex >1000 times that seems like a regrettable exchange.

In addition to weighing in on these two hypotheses I held but did not have the resources to test, this research provided two surprising conclusions that I had never formed hypotheses about.

Unexpected Conclusion 1: Students don’t date any more.

Freitas concluded that the normative path to becoming a couple is a hookup that becomes a regular hookup where mutual feelings develop and then is labeled a ‘couple’.

“The hook up has replaced the first date” 217

“Claudia informs me about what to her is an obvious fact: dating is simply not an option at her school. “I’ve never gone on a date here…I don’t feel like people date anymore.” ‘the date’ is spoken of as a mythical artifact of a bygone era…some students didn’t even know what to make of it “I think girls want to go on dates, I really do…my friends and I have talked about this before. I really want to go on a date to see what it is like…it seems like such an odd idea in our head just because we don’t do that.” 136-7 [3]

“most relationships seem to begin as hookups. How else are relationships to begin if students are largely unacquainted with what they see as the quaint, old-fashioned practice of dating? Numerous students I interviewed said it was almost unheard of for one person to ask another out on anything approaching a traditional date…romantic encounters…typically happened after multiple hookups and the decision to become a couple. Dates just aren’t a common way into a relationship. Students don’t see many avenues into committed romantic relationships apart from hooking up.” 139

And the death of dating is particularly surprising given the second unexpected conclusion:

Unexpected Conclusion 2: Romance is Chaste

Freitas asked the surveyed students to describe their most romantic encounter. She reported that 79% of the students included ‘no more than kissing’ in their report of their most romantic memory [4] and over half didn’t even include kissing.

All students regardless of institution, religion or orientation, describe romance in decidedly non-sexual terms. “Romance, to them is chaste…Hardly ever did a student story about romance include any suggestion of sexual intimacy. At all the participating colleges and universities, women and men alike, regardless of religious affiliation, tended to disassociate romance from sexual intimacy.” 107


[1] Note: There is a lot more sexual content in these posts that there will be in my talk. I cut most of it. There will be very little sexual content in my talk.
[2] However, while most students indicate dissatisfaction with campus sexual culture ‘and they disassociate themselves from the problems that are creating it.” 158
[3] Lauren Winner reports that “Groups such as the Independent Women’s Fourm have taken out ads in college newspapers calling for students to ‘Take Back the Date.”
[4] For a few, where sex was involved, several reported that it was romantic because drugs and alcohol weren’t.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Romance (Part 3): A comic interlude (random comics and clips)

A lot of good speakers/preachers keep topical illustration and content files.  I have found that too complicated.  I have a single, huge, comics and illustration file.  At the beginning of each quarter I brouse it to see if there is anything useful for my upcoming talks.  It turns out that in the last few years I have collected more material on romance and relationships than any other single topic.  So I gave it its own folder.[1]  I chose a handful for the talk…and decided to put a few more up here.  Sources include NatileeDee, toothpastefordinner, xkcd, youtube, saturday morning breakfast cereal and a couple others I have forgotten.

Note: This one is not only hilarious but also really insightful.

For some reason this one reminds me of the presidential debate last night.

[1] Second place, it turns out, is existential dread.  Apparently sex and oblivion are either particularly funny or are topics I really resonate with.  So I have created two topical sub-folders and I’ll do a post like this in a couple months that highlights the comedic material from the second one.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Relationships (Part 2) - A Brief Reflection on ‘Sexual Compatibility’

One of the main objections [1] I hear to the Christian practice of postponing sexual connection until after the couple forges a public, lifelong, covenant through the exchange of vows is that you lose the opportunity to test ‘sexual compatibility.’

Let me be frank. I think this objection is goofy.

The frequency and quality of sex after a decade of marriage - in the vast majority of cases - has very little to do with anything that you could discover in early sexual encounters. The long term quality of the sexual connection is contingent on the quality of the friendship after it has been subjected to the eventual and inevitable full disclosure of crazy [2] on both sides.

The biologization[3] of sex (i.e. the standard campus narrative where it is simultaneously no big deal, yet something no one can live without) generates the myth that it is primarily a physical transaction. But decades into a relationship, the quality of sex is a function of how much you still like[4] your partner (and how much they like you). This is not something you will learn in the serotonin[5] soaked early sexual encounters. Your best chance at identifying long term ‘sexual compatibility’ is the sober enterprise of character assessment[6]…which is undermined, not aided by pre-vow physical intimacy.

This post was written while listening to the Jon Forman[7] station on Pandora

[1] This started as a footnote to footnote [2] of the previous post. If you are keeping score at home, this text is the footnote to a footnote to a footnote of a post that began its life as a footnote in the talk manuscript.
[2] Keller argues (I think rightly) that many people come to hate their partner, not because of what they learn about their partner, but because of what they are forced to face about themselves: “the conflict that marriage creates is not conflict with your spouse but with yourself…you cannot run from yourself…in the past if someone revealed your flaws, you could always leave -marriage isn’t hard because it is hard to live with someone else, its hard because it is difficult to face your true self”
[3] Credit – Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. I always feel like citing this text is flirting with Goodwin’s Law…but its not my fault that really clear ethical thinking happens on death row in a Nazi prison.  And to not cite one of my 'top 5 favorite books of all time' is a bit much to ask in deference to oblique complience with a goofy-if-helpful internet law.
[4] Not just some abstract fuzzy idea of ‘love’ but actual, concrete, cultivated, sustained affection.
[5] Actually, I think dopamine is the bigger player…but serotonin alliterated, so the writer won over the scientist…but the scientist got to file a dissenting brief in the footnote. Yes, I am aware that I might have a serious problem.
[6] e.g. Is this someone who will consistently own their faults and forgive mine…because that is someone you will still like after a decade of marriage and the craziness carnival of kids and/or career.
[7] I am in a bit of a musical rut. Feel free to leave band recommendations in the comments.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Relationships (Part 1) - The Myth of 25: Divorce, Age of First Marriage and the Importance of Inflection Points

Note: Tonight we start a three part series on relationships at CollegeLife, the campus ministry our family is involved with. The topics will be friendship, family, and romance. I drew the short straw and will be doing the romance talk two weeks from today. We structured the series this way because my thesis is that romance is the mechanism to turn a friendship into a family (which is the smallest unit of missional community). Unsurprisingly, I have a number of thoughts that emerge from my study and reflection on this over the last couple months that won’t even make it into the manuscript I cut. So I’m putting them here.

I have heard and read several times in my preparation for this relationship talk that “the probability of divorce is significantly higher for couples that get married before 25 than those that get married after.” This is true. Unfortunately, it also fails to convey the important information. You see, it is also true that there is a lower divorce rate for those who get married before 75 than for those who marry after…but this statement also fails to not convey the useful information. The question is not ‘how do the statistics line up on either side of an arbitrary boundary that I chose for polemical purposes?’ but ‘what is the inflection point of this monotonic function?’

Here are the actual statistics that everyone is quoting. [1][2]

The “under 25” stats are dragged down by the 15-20 stats. The meaningful inflection point is at 20. [3] Which means that for the question most college students are asking: “is it wise to peruse a relationship that might turn into marriage right after college” (say at age 22). [4] The answer is ‘sure’. Who you are [5] is more important than when you marry after the important inflection point of 20. [6]

Now for the speculative part. Why is there no significant difference between the early 20’s and late 20’s when so much social and human development happens in that decade? Well, you will be shocked to learn that I have a theory. Those who get married older presumably have more maturity [7] (e.g. self skepticism, experience with communication, the ability to budget, etc…) which will certainly help a marriage. But maturity is a trade off with another marriage asset…flexibility. [8]

I think getting married at 28 is fine and has a number of non-trivial advantages. But the same can be said of getting married at 22 (which is what Amanda and I did). I am not the person she married. But she was there for the process of becoming (and had the opportunity to influence it and be influenced by it) giving us a shared story and convergent behaviors. Our adult lives have been lived together before we formed divergent habits.

So, the answer to the question, ‘is there a higher divorce rate for those who marry before 25?’ is, yes. But it doesn’t answer the real question college students are asking.

The more important question to most college students: “Is there a statistically significant higher divorce rate for 22 year olds than 28 year olds?” returns the null hypothesis.

This post was written while listening to the Charlie Darwin [9] station on Pandora
[1] Bramlett MD and Mosher WD. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(22). 2002.
[2]The study also showed that the probability of a ‘cohabitation disruption’ drops from 67% to 53% from the 20-24 to the 25 and over age classes. But this is a fundamentally different phenomenon as the study also showed that couples that cohabitate before marriage have a higher divorce rate (cohabitation – 51% divorced after 15 years compared to non-cohabitators 39%). Bramlett MD and Mosher WD. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(22). 2002. Which led to this:
[3] And, I would argue, that the selection of 25 as an arbitrary threshold is often intentionally deceptive. The cultural narrative that marriage unnecessarily restricts freedom has worked its way into the public consciousness in a way that is not fundamentally questioned.
[4] Note, this is a non-linear function, so if the inflection point is at 20, we can probably expect that 20-22 behaves more like the previous time series than 22-25, making 22 statistically identical to 28. But given the sample size, it is safe to say that 22 is not ‘significantly’ different than 28, in a statistical sense.
[5] And, as the study suggests, the baggage you bring to the marriage from your family and community…and also your income (which is a whole other post).
[6]Note: this is for “all races” but Bramlett and Mosher thought one of their most interesting findings was how the Latino community diverged from this result. There was no real trend. The 20-24 cohort had the lowest divorce rage followed by the <18 cohort, but all were within a few percentage points of each other.
[7] If they embrace the process of actively converting experience into wisdom. Age is correlated with wisdom, but not predictive. Age is not an automatic vehicle of wisdom. We have to actively harvest wisdom from the fields of our joy and pain.
[8] It is interesting that the numbers are identical after 15 years but don’t take the same path to get there. 5 years out, marriages between older partners take the lead (i.e. fewer ‘disruptions’). Which means that the statistics show that if an early marriage survives the first 5 years, it has a higher chance of making it than an older marriage that survives the first five years. I might argue that a lack of maturity will blow up on the front end…but if you survive it, the flexibility gains are substantial.
[9] By Low Anthem.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 A Year in Books: Idea Texts

This year I split my year end book post into idea books (this post) and narrative or story (previous posts).

Here is the key to the shorthand notes:

(A) - Audio – I listened to this book
(N) – I have a word document of notes and quotes from this book[1]
(!) – I really liked this book
(X%) – I didn’t finish this book – I either ran out of time to comit or felt like I got the gist - this is the percentage I read

I went overboard with the footnotes (even for me) – feel free to skip them, but if they interest you, you might want to open a second browser.

Fear and Trembling[2] - Soren Kierkegaard (50%) (!)(N)

“There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, work for word, but how many did it render sleepless” [3]

I was scheduled to preach on Abraham sacrificing Isaac this year before I gave the passage away to my friend Zach. But while I was still planning to do the talk, I revisited my favorite work on the story. SK is my favorite philosopher.[4] I wrote six papers on him during my theology degree, including one on F&T. Unsurprisingly, I found that I had not understood it at all my first time through.[5] But it was fun to revisit an old friend…especially one this playful. I remember back when I was doing my Kierkegaard independent study I told my brother ‘I just read about a thousand pages of Kierkegaard.’ His response was apt; “That sounds good for the soul.”

Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be[7]: A Breviary of Sin - Cornelius Plantinga[8] (!) (N)

“Like some mad charioteer, we now run our lives with more speed than direction.” [9]

I started this book seven years ago, found the first chapter underwhelming, and set it aside. When I picked it up this summer it still had the Olympic National Park bookmark in it, from my first attempt during a pre-kids hiking trip. But it just kept popping up as a substantial influence in books I love by writers I respect. So I picked it up again…and I came to believe that in addition to the explicit references to this work that had prevailed on me to read it, there was a whole body of insight transferred to me uncited by secondary sources, that had its origin in this work. It was breathtaking.

It is a thin work (200 pages) dense with insight. However, unlike Volf (below) this little book yielded its value effortlessly. Plantinga writes engaging, clear, precise, fluid, enjoyable prose [10] and has a knack for fresh language that breathes new life and imaginative energy into tired ideas. [11]

Plantinga’s strength is semantic precision and careful distinction. He takes a clumsy, shadowy concept like ‘sin’ and identifies its constituent parts. [12] Additionally, since he is a psychologist first and theologian second, he makes helpful attempts to ask integrating questions (e.g. what connection is there between addition and sin) and comes away with believably nuanced answers. Really, just a great little book.

Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion - Richard Fenn

"the resurgence of conservative religion...taken together provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena." Fenn (on Berger)

Every year I try to take on an experimental reading program. Consider it the ‘high volatility’ portion of my ‘reading portfolio.’ For years I have wanted to dive into the literature on the Sociology of Religion, but didn’t know where to start. Fenn’s book was like sending a scouting party in a realm of unknown and promising reflection. Like Joshua and Caleb reporting back from Canaan, Fenn gave a report of a realm guarded by the imposing, troubling, giants (Freud and Weber) but that it was a land of rich reflective resources (Martin and Burger) that made it worth forging deeper.

A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (!) (N) – Peter Berger

“Hopelessness does not have a superior epistemological status.” [13]

This was my most influential book of 2011. I am officially a PB fanboy. I guarantee that future lists will include more. Over the summer I ran overnight flume experiments and passed the late hours easily reading this book. Burger poses a number of startling and fertile ideas regarding how human communities influence individual beliefs. He is most famous for coining ‘plausibility structures’ [14] and ‘the sacred canopy’ and for paradigm shifting work on the causes and influences of secularization. But one of the refreshing things about Berger is that he recognizes that these social components of belief are not somehow limited to religious worldviews and recognizes that ‘intellectuals’ are not somehow magically exempt. [15] He finds the work of plausibility structures and social warrants for belief in most modern worldviews and takes the ubiquitous sociological data of the human experience of transcendence seriously.

AFG included a number of helpful ideas that really deserve their own posts but include:
  • ‘belief clusters’
  • mysticism’s ‘morning after’ problem
  • the role of institutions (religious and secular) as metaphysical ‘beasts of burden’
  • the rise of the knowledge class which led to a split in the middle class and set up our current political landscape, and
  • the possibility that secularization has not, in fact, been a story of progress but, just maybe, it is a story of ‘epistemological deprivation.’ [16]

“It is quite possible that in the dawn of its history the human race had an access to reality that it subsequently lost, as it is possible that this reality is briefly accessible in childhood and then lost in the basically depressing process of growing up. If so, what we commonly think of as progress may actually be a devastating story of epistemological deprivation.”

Miller is a Christian professor of Molecular Biology (Brown) that travels around debating creationists and famous proponents of intelligent design. [17] He is often mentioned in the same breath with Francis Collins of Orthodox believers with scientific street cred who reject ID and defend the neo-Darwiniain synthesis.

The book is OK. He effectively deconstructs the ID arguments but in his efforts to distance himself from the ID community, he is often uncharitable. [18] But he is a capable author and the last couple chapters where he describes his own scientific-theological synthesis are quite good. He argues that because of the unexpected weirdness of modern physics it is far easier to be a Christian today than it was 100 years ago. [19]

The Goldilocks Enigma – Paul Davies (50%) (!)

“Somehow the universe has engineered not just its own awareness, but its own comprehension. Mindless blundering atoms have conspired to make, not just life, not just mind, but understanding. The evolving cosmos has spawned beings who are able not merely to watch the show but to unravel the plot. What is it that enables something a small and delicate and adapted to terrestrial life as the human brain to engage with the totality of the cosmos and the silent mathematical tune to which it dances?”

Davis is a cosmologist at the University of Arizona and is an affable and complicated figure. I read this book to help craft my ‘positive arguments’ lecture for our Apologetics class. It is the current, definitive lay treatment of the fine tuning argument. The book surveys some of the findings of contemporary physics and asks the old teleological question in its updated, more precise, form…Is chance really the best explanation for all this? “Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems to be ‘just right’ for life in many intriguing ways.”

It is much more a science text than a theology text, but it is accessible, readable and compelling.

Love Wins – Rob Bell

I hate being forced to read a book. So if a marketing blitz makes a book so talked about that I am forced to read it because people want my take on it, I am generally not a sympathetic reader. Reading time is one of my most precious and limited commodities and this author has essentially stolen it from me with clever marketing. Previous offenders include the Da Vinci Code and Left Behind.

Love Wins is not a very good book (though it is not nearly as bad as the other two I just mentioned). [20] Bells’ characteristic, playful, subversive, staccato, conversational style (which, generally, is impossible not to enjoy) does not lend itself to a weighty work of theology. You cannot write a systematic work of theology in 6 word sentences or with a book that is mostly white space. And there are a couple of unfortunate pages where he flirts [21] with a modest form of universalism. [22]

But, these things do not rank as the thing I liked least about this book. What I liked least was the plagiarism. You see, each chapter was essentially a book report (in Bell’s characteristic style) on a text I have read and found influential. First, we get the argument from Wright’s Surprised by Hope, then Keller’s Prodigal God, then Stott’s The Cross of Christ. There is little attempt at synthesis with other authors, the arguments are essentially lifted from these books and put in Rob’s voice. But this simply makes the text unoriginal. The thing that bothered me was that none of these authors were credited [23] for their ideas and only two of the three [24] were included in the ‘for further reading’ list at the end of the book. That is not ok…especially given the kind of money this book made.

With all that said, most of the discussion of this book has been far to earnest (bordering on hyperbolic)…and in contrast, Don Miller wrote my favorite piece on this little book.

Genesis For Everyone Part 1 and Part 2 - Goldengay (!)

“Abraham is a hero on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and a wimp on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday. Today it’s Tuesday.”

I like Goldengay. Sure he might attribute more creative effort to the Babylonian editor than I do. And from time to time he might be a block or two left of me. [24] But his insights are penetrating, his prose is effortless to read, and his personal story [25] (which he weaves into these ‘for everyone’ volumes) gives him credibility.

Genesis NIV Application Commentary [26] - Walton (50%)

It is kind of funny that I only read this commentary through Genesis 3, and still read half of it. Walton’s background and commentary on the first three chapters is a long as his commentary on chapters 4-50. [27] But he is great. Walton’s analysis is characterized by two distinctive qualities:

1) Hermeneutical precession: Walton was explicit with his hermeneutics as he undertook the tasks of difficult interpretation in a way I rarely see in commentaries. In some ways, this text doubles as a hermeneutics text by practical and repeated case study. Whenever he encountered controversy, he identified the ‘resistant communication’, examined the semantic range, and brought the synchronic and diachronic evidence to bear (placing the priority on the former).

2) Comprehensive Understanding of the Ancient Mesopotamian[28] Milieu. Walton has a comprehensive mental map of the other stories and civilizations that the Genesis narrative was written into. He employs similarity and dissimilarity as interpretive aids rather than tools for genetic speculation and leverages them to cast light on difficult passages. [29]

Genesis Walter Brueggemann/Derek Kidner [30] (20%)

I usually try to read 4 commentaries on any passage I preach. [31] One to the right, one to the left and a couple more in my theological neighborhood. In this metaphor, Kidner basically lives in my house. His commentary is incredible because he generally has one or two pages of fragments per passage, but without fail, they have been outstanding. Brueggemann was the commentary ‘on the left.’ I have a complicated relationship with Brueggemann. Sometimes his exegesis is unmatched in its weight and insight. And sometimes it is just goofy. No one had more useful insight on the Tower of Babel but his Genesis 3 analysis made me wonder if we were reading the same text.

Exclusion and Embrace – Miroslov Volf (N) (!)

“Instead of simply affirming plurality we must nurture an awareness of our own fallibility…a world neatly divided into territories of pure light and of utter darkness…exists (only) in the imaginations of the self-righteous…In a world shot through with injustice, the struggle for justice must be carried on by people inescapably tainted by injustice.”

“Perception is a moral exercise.” [32]

Great book. Volf is Serbian and refreshingly unaffected by the ‘pleasant trappings of the western suburban sensibility’ that dominates most of our flaccid and stunted discourse about justice, power, and reconciliation. He has a fierce mind and a humble posture. He interacts effortlessly (and often sympathetically [33]) with Foucault and Macintyre but rests unapologetically on Jesus and the Christian story. He is not cowed by intellectual bullies [34] but sympathetic to de-centered voices. [35] E&E was difficult reading but productive reflection.

Ecological Restoration: Principles, Values, and Structure of an Emerging Profession - Various

Maybe restoration isn’t something you can learn from a text book. At several universities the river restoration research is happening in studio based departments like Landscape Architecture. But I found this text pretty unhelpful. We read a couple chapters and two student assigned papers each week as part of a discussion based class in Restoration Ecology. The papers were, without exception, more valuable. And this is probably why there are not more ecology texts on this list even though I am an currently an Ecology grad student. Once you progress from the introductory synthesis to the actual messy details, debates and paradoxes of a field, the primary literature is where it is at. Most of my professional and academic reading this year was dedicated to journals.

Mere Discipleship – Lee Camp

“We might summarize Revelation this way: in the ring of human history there's a bleeding lamb in one corner and a dragon in the other. 'Common sense' would tell us we should place our bet on the dragon-but there is a new common sense, a new reality, in which the Lamb runs out victorious."

Sometimes it matters when you read a book. If I had read this book a decade ago it would have been paradigm shifting. But on the other side of ‘the new social gospel’ I had a better understanding of the truth and over-simplification involved in the neo-Anabaptist thing. I hugely appreciate the attempt to deconstruct the western evangelical allergy too suffering and our ‘Constantinian’ desire to intertwine church and state…but find something similarly sub-Christian about the moralistic tone and implicit salvation-through-suffering soteriology.

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers – Christopher Hall (50%) 

“If I love the wrong things, I will consistently choose the wrong things…an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. ”

I am a fan of ‘the Fathers’. So I was destined to love this book. It has been on my reading list for a while. I picked it up for a talk I am doing on the historical doctrine of human nature…but could not put it down until I got through the Chrystostom on Providence and Gregory of Nyssa on the Spirit.

Hall is more than an expert of dusty texts, he is a man with dead friends. And he introduces us to them with deep affection and apt admiration. He does the hard work of understanding these men on their terms and delivering them to us as ‘and antidote for theological and ethical faddism’ and argues that due to their ‘hermeneutical proximity’…’they often hear melodies and harmonies in the biblical narrative that modern Christians fail to discern.”

Sex and the Soul – Donna Freitas [36] (N)

“Students at (secular public, secular private and Catholic) [37] colleges may have all the sexual freedom in the world, but it is not giving them much reward.”

It was a good year for me and Boston University. This is exactly what I was looking for. A substantive work of social research (published by Oxford press). [38] Freitas surveyed 2,500 students and interviewed 111 to understand the interaction of spirituality and sexuality on the American campus. Then she delivers her systematic findings through an anecdotal narrative structure (recounting the most memorable interviews that articulated the general findings) that made the text highly readable.

 have a post ready to go on this book as part of the 4 to 5 part romance series I am going to run in January (leading up to a talk I am writing on the topic)…so I’ll say more then.

Defining your dating style: 5 paths to the love of your life – Multiple Authors 

“We use the other for our own glorification, we bask in the presence of our beloved because we enjoy the image of ourselves that is reflected back.” - Lauren Winner

I pretty much hate dating books. [38.5] For something so shrouded in mystery they are almost uniformly far too dogmatic. I find the dating/courtship debates [39] to be mostly a matter of semantics and have seen both models go catastrophically poorly with approximately the same frequency. So this book was a bit of a refreshing change, offering five different [40] positions and a fair amount of insight. In particular, it was helpful to recognize their areas of agreement and disagreement.

There was a 500 pound gorilla in the room, however. The finest writing [41] and reflection in this text was by Lauren Winner, who referenced her new marriage several times in the essay…a marriage which did not last. Just like bigotry in secular culture[42], divorce is the failure the church often does not allow redemption from. You can almost hear the smug response by one or two of her interlocutors to this event that had not yet happened. [43] But here is the thing. Her thoughts are still kind [44] and wise and helpful. And that is the really beautiful thing about the Christian community. Failure does not disqualify.

The Meaning of Marriage – Time Keller (!)  

“single people (need)…a balanced, informed view of marriage…(or) they will either over-desire or under-desire marriage, and either of those ways of thinking will distort their lives.”

After I read this book I sat down and wrote Keller an e-mail to thank him for being my ‘remote mentor’ (thought his MP3’s and books – which is kind of like having an imaginary friend but more profitable) for about 4 years now. This is practically a transcript of a 1992 series he gave on Marriage [45] and has become my new go-to recommendation on the topic (as well as my new go-to wedding present).

From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: A History of Courtship in the US – Beth Bailey

Don’t let the fun title, fool you…this is a weighty and scholarly work. It seems as though Bailey has read every singly ‘teen magazine’ and ‘dating manual’ written between 1890 and 1960 and that each paragraph quotes 2-4 of them. [46] But, despite the dense content Baily writes extremely well. [47] Pages fly by as insights and paradigm shifts pile up. I hope to do a post on this book in the next few weeks too, but for not I’ll just say that it was helpful to understand the generational ebb and flow of romantic mores and appreciate the sheer novelty of each system. Anyone who hopes to do substantive thinking on any social phenomenon has to ask, ‘how did we get here.’ Bailey was an able guide to the recent history of dating in our culture.

Previous year’s posts: 2010, 2009


[1] And I’d be happy to e-mail them if you want a summary.
[2] Someday I will write a post “5 reasons I like SK” like the Sufjan post I wrote…and the fun thing is that they will share one of the points. Like Sufjan in music, SK is the undisputed champion in philosophy of ‘best titles.’ Consider, ‘Fear and Trembling,’ ‘A Sickness Unto Death’, ‘Either/Or’, and ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript’ (which was the follow up to ‘Philosophical Fragments’ and about 3 times as long in a hilarious deconstruction of the ad hoc requirements necessary to make Hegelianism work…I am convinced that the work exists almost 90% as a delivery vehicle for the title…which is precisely the kind of cheeky thing SK did. Seriously, there is just no other contender for ‘favorite philosopher.’)
[3] Like I could have limited the great Dane to a single quote:
“My memory is a faithful spouse, and my imagination … a busy little maid.”
“We are touched, we look back to those beautiful times. Sweet sentimental longing leads us to the goal of our desire, to see Christ walking about in the promised land. We forget the anxiety, the distress, the paradox. Was it such a simple matter not to make a mistake? Was it not terrifying that this man walking around among the others was God? Was it not terrifying to sit down and eat with him?”
[4] I know analytical folks would scoff at the idea that SK is a philosopher, but they can kiss my existentialist butt. (or actually the butt of my pseudonym’s pseudonym…SK is awesome).
[5] I actually wrote a paper on Bonheoffer’s dependence on Kierkegaard without once mentioning the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ That seems like a pretty goofy oversight on one hand…but strengthens my thesis that DB was indebted to SK on the other (which, incidentally, was the topic of the ‘fiercest’ debate I ever got into in a class. I was incredulous when a classmate branded DB a ‘Hegelian’ which was his fancy way of saying ‘too liberal for evangelical utility’).
[7] Great title, after a film from the 1970’s. Of course, if I was to write this book now, I’d go with the title ‘But it’s the other way.’
[8] Who, it turns out, is Alvin’s brother. This surprises me for some reason. Yes they are both brilliant and creative minds, but the think and write with such dramatic peculiarity and almost no stylistic overlap.
[9]Another really interesting idea is what engineers and ecologists call ‘runaway feedback’ – “People not only reap what they sow but also sow what the reap…sow a thought, and reap a deed; sow a deed, and reap another deed; sow some deeds, and reap a habit; sow some habits, and reap a character; sow a character and reap two thoughts…Hence the progress of both good and evil.”
[10] Which is particularly surprising for those of us who have wrestled through his brother’s brilliant works that are about as enjoyable as an engineering manual.
[11] Now this fails as well as succeeds. The reason I didn’t like the first chapter is that the shalom argument got way more play in the 1990’s than it deserved (I wrote a cantankerous paper once that argued that the way progressive evangelicals had pressed shalom into service did not respect the synchronic evidence of the word’s semantic range). Also, ‘spiritual hygiene’ might be the goofiest way to describe holiness that I have encountered. But this is nit picking. In general, much of the lucid value of this work rests on Plantinga’s uncanny mastery of metaphor as pedagogy.
[12] After briefly parsing sin into guilt and corruption he dodges the standard theological debates regarding the former and zeroes in on the various ways that the latter manifests in human behavior and psychology including the perverting, polluting, progressive and parasitic nature of sin).
[13] Actually, this is my favorite quote from AFG, but it was longish…“Reality is haunted by that otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life. Much of the time the otherness is successfully held at bay, seemingly domesticated or even denied, so that we can go about the business of living. From time to time we catch glimpses of transcendent reality as the business of living is interrupted or put in question for one reason or another.”
[14] “Human beings, due to their intrinsically and inexorably social nature, require social support for whatever they believe about the world… There are people (and not only theologians or religious believers) who deny that there is any social context to their lives…I believe that the denial is less than honest…”
[15] “Intellectuals do not have better moral judgment than people with little or no education, they do not live more wisely, they are certainly not more compassionate, they have not fewer but different superstitions, and they are capable of the most mindless fanaticisms.”
[16] This is a not-so-subtle shot at Freud’s classical idea that religion is an adult attempt to recapture childhood. Berger asks the question ‘what gives adults epistemological preference?’ Why do we assume that children do not see parts of reality more clearly and that the damage done to the selves in the traumatic process of adolescent socialization results in epistemological loss that should be recaptured. Essentially Berger is arguing that ‘myth of progress’ writ large also shows up on the individual psychological level. Whether or not he is right (and I’m not sure he is convinced, mostly I think he is asserting a thought experiment) it casts new light on Jesus’ statement that ‘In order to enter the Kingdom of God’ you must first become like a little child.
[17] This is the only non-exegetical book I read to prepare my origins talk.
[18] My brother once said of the Emerging Church folks that ‘they are more charitable to those a mile to their left than they are to those 5 feet to their right.’ I kind of felt this about this book.
[19] This tails off nicely from Berger and Fenn who argue that the prediction that secularization is a unidirectional and monotonic process has failed catastrophically. Berger and Fenn press sociological data to demonstrate that it has failed empirically but Miller (and Davies, next) press the scientific data to demonstrate that science has failed to squeeze God into a smaller and smaller space, but instead, revealed uncharted (uncharitable?) expanses of reality where he may reside and act.
[20] But, let’s be clear. I do still like Bell, very much. I actually have a half finished post called ‘Why I like both Bell and Driscoll even thought you are not supposed to be able to like both.’
[21] Which is actually the best word for it, because he does not commit.
[22] Which, like the two unfortunate pages on justification in the middle of Simply Christian, is unfortunately all that gets talked about.
[22] My brother once said that a lack of citation is a sign that an author is over dependent on a source (because they don’t want to point the reader to the source that would reveal the unoriginality of the work). I reviewed a professional document this year that had large chunks lifted word for word from a text I had happened to read. The text was not included in the references. I got a little of the same feeling reading this book.
[23] In fairness, he may not have even known his cross stuff was from Stott, he might have gotten it mediated through a source on his list that I haven’t read, who got it from Stott. It would be ironic (aihctbu) if Stott, the only author who would be sympathetic to his speculations, was the only author he is indebted to that he didn’t read.
[24] Though he is difficult to classify. For example, more than once he draws applications from the text that most modern worldviews simply do not have the resources to think in generational time scales or embrace children and that the Biblical text is unembarrassed and unrestrained in its assertion that children are the purpose of romance.
[25] His wife has been sick, confined to a wheelchair, and unable to communicate for years. He gave up his post as the head of a seminary to devote more time to her care.
[26] This series has been outstanding almost without exception. If a young preacher had to blindly pick a commentary on a book without any author loyalties, based only on the series, I’d recommend this series.
[27] I also acquired and started his book on origins but after I read Walton’s commentary on Genesis 1 and 2 I realized that I had already internalized Walton’s ‘Genesis 1 argues that the whole earth is Yahweh’s temple…it is about creation’s function not the details of its making.”
[28] Every time I use the word Mesopotamian I think “And no one’s ever heard of my band…Sargon, Hammarabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh…”
[29] Because, as he points out, similarity does not point out derivation in either direction.
[30] Two books by different guys, not one co-authored by both…though that might be the most intriguing and surreal commentary ever written.
[31] We are preaching Genesis this year. MP3’s are here.
[32] This is a short hand form of the longer quote: ““Both the ‘clenched fist’ and the ‘open arms’ are epistemological stances; they are moral conditions of moral perception – a claim which rests on a more general Nietzschean insight that “all experiences are moral experiences, even in the realm of perception.” …you must want more than justice; you must want embrace. There can be no justice without the will to embrace. It is, however, equally true that there can be no genuine and lasting embrace without justice.”
[33] Which I appreciate because I think both of these guys have a ton to offer…as well as much to reject, which Volf also unapologetically does.
[34] E.g. Those whose rhetoric generally aims to impugn or shame more than inform or enlighten.
[35] One of the most interesting ideas is that the Bible does not grant the poor a moral advantage but an epistemological advantage (because the powerful control the message – I’ll have more thoughts on this in future posts). Also, I think he could be considered a feminist by even the most rigorous definitions.
[36] My new year’s resolution a couple years ago was to read more women. I have not done well. But there are a few in the balance of the list.
[37] She lumps these three into a category she calls ‘spiritual’ colleges because she found the sexual and spiritual landscape at theses schools to be basically indistinguishable.
[38] Freitas, who had literally ‘never stepped foot on’ an evangelical campus before her research, practically gushes about the intellectual and social formation of the students at these schools (though she also identifies the weird of paradoxes of our sexual ethics with relative clarity). Admittedly, she doesn’t have the insight of an insider to recognize our own special brands of brokenness, but her positive, analytical, outsider analysis made me feel, ‘it might be pretty cool if my kids wanted to do undergrad at an evangelical school.’
[38.5] With that said, my hatred of dating books is exceeded by my hatred of my lack of wisdom on the topic. It seems like I field a constant stream of inquiries from students looking for guidance on how to negotiate the romantic choices they are faced with in college. And I find myself with little concrete to offer. So I undertook a systematic reading program to try to move forward just a little.
[39] If you have not spent time in the evangelical community, I realize that this phrase sounds like something from the 1920’s…on Mars.
[40] Actually, I think there were three basic approaches advocated, but five authors wrote about their perspectives with substantial overlap between everyone except the betrothal guy (yes, there was a betrothal guy, whose chapter was as strange as you would expect). I was actually a little disappointed that they didn’t go out and find a good South Asian Calvinist to make a case for arrangement. I think it might have strengthened the book.
[41] Really, the only ‘writing’ that had artistic value beyond pragmatic reporting of ideas.
[42] Both cultures have an unforgivable sin…which suggests that it is not the failure of the culture itself, but something in the human heart which stigmatizes certain arbitrary actions to the point that it dehumanizes the person and abstracts them to a single behavior.
[43] It is hard not to feel a sense of responsibility for Laruen all too public story. The Christian community is hungry for celebrity…for our own version of rock stars we can idealize and, frankly, idolize. Lauren’s wit and insight made her conversion something we elevated – which made her subsequent doubt something we took personally. In other words, we comodified her, possessed her, and became ‘economically’ invested in her story, losing the capacity to feel with her or give her space for the hard chapters of her life. (Tebow might want to take note).
[44] In particular, despite self identifying as a feminist and, therefore, believing that the courtship culture spawned by Harris’ works led to instantiated gender roles that are goofy at best and harmful at worst (a critique I totally agree with, incidentally) she organizes her chapter around five basic points of agreement with Harris et al, taking a position of fundamental unity in diversity and affirms his central ideas (which, she argues, have been distorted by the ‘courtship movement’).
[45] I have said it before, but Keller is the anti-Lewis in one way. CS Lewis was the one of the best writers of his era but claimed to be a poor speaker. Keller is one of the finest orators of our age, and his winsome, caring, playful tone does not make the leap to the page…but the wisdom does.
[46] Sometimes I feel like the historian’s daily routine is a lot like the scientist’s (particularly the field biologist or geologist)…and sometimes I feel like they are totally different. But I do kind of think that history is often closer to science in its method than the things we call ‘social science’.
[47] Especially in the first third of the book where she outlines courtship. When the book turns to the latter topics it is comparably weighty, moderately helpful but less readable.