Monday, October 31, 2011


For some community college art class many years ago, I had to do a group project, and the painting (though it received an "A") was not to my liking. I finally painted over it--I thought it looked interesting during the process of being painted over, so I took a picture:

Here it is finished:

The idea of this painting came into my mind I think in the summer of 2009. I was taking a class on the Pentateuch and we had the option of doing some artwork (with a written explanation) for the final project. I was thinking about the story of Jacob's reconciliation with Esau (after his long night struggling against the angel of the Lord). I didn't actually do the painting until now. (I ended up writing a series of sonnets for the class instead.) I was very dissatisfied when I first finished this, because there was too much contrast in color between the sun part and the hilly farmland part. Then the flowers at the bottom edge sort of sprang up unexpectedly, as it were, tying things together quite nicely, I thought.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

More Gratitude, Less Entitlement

I started typing a response to Remigius's comment, and then realized it would be better just to compose a new post.

It's a valid point, certainly, that there would be some benefits to society if the government were to spend more money on subsidizing higher education. There would be some drawbacks, also. And I can't say exactly what the relative merits would be of keeping things as they are versus increasing government spending on education--these things are usually rather complicated.

But what I'm really trying to get at, what really bothers me is the idea that somehow people "deserve" a college education merely by virtue of being alive. Perhaps we could build a better society by giving people more things they haven't earned or done anything to deserve (like free healthcare and even more free education than is already available), but if we do, it ought to be considered a privilege, not an entitlement. A person who is enabled by tax-payer dollars to get a college degree should have an even greater sense of gratitude and indebtedness to society and the government than I have toward my loan companies.

It's interesting, though, how human psychology works. In addition to taking out loans, I received some grants and scholarships during my academic career. I was grateful for these when they were awarded, but I promptly forgot about them--even the ones for which I had to write thank-you letters. Having no head for figures, I don't even remember how much of the cost of my education they covered. I really have very little idea of the value of the free gifts I received to help pay for my degrees.

I do, however, have a profound sense of the value of the loans I took out. I have some idea of how long it's going to take me to pay them off (a very long time), which indicates to me just how lucky I was to be able to take out these loans, and also indicates to me the monetary value of my formal education.

Logically, I ought to be more grateful to the entities that gave me free money, than to those that only lent me money. But the opposite is true, because I have very little sense of the value of the free money, whereas I know very well the value of the money that I am responsible for paying back.

So, anyway ... it's a nice idea for everyone to be able to go to college for free, or for there to be more government grants available to fund people's education. But it's also a nice idea for everyone to know the actual value of the privileges they enjoy, and it seems to me that having to work for those privileges creates just such an awareness--whereas giving them away for free tends to detract from it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Heart My Loan Companies

I've been wanting to say for the longest time (and just haven't gotten around to it until now) that I feel a genuine debt of gratitude to the companies who gave me loans so that I could complete both a Bachelor's and a Master's by the age of twenty-five. If it weren't for them, either I wouldn't have been able to attend school at all, or I would've needed to devote myself to earning and raising the money myself in advance, which would probably have taken many, many years.

When I first thought to write about how I love my loan companies, it had not occurred to me that some people would be demanding a free college education for anyone who wants it. I guess now I ought to address them in some way.

Well ... let me just point out that formal education is not free. Professors need salaries. Campuses need classrooms and libraries. Institutions need administrators. These things cost money. They cost a lot of money.

I do not hold to the idea that anyone who wants anything of value has a right to get it for free. If you want something that's worth a lot of money, you should have to work hard for it. This is why I am so deeply grateful that some businesses were willing to loan me large sums of money in advance of my having to work hard, because they trust me to pay them back with interest now that I'm done.

Sure, they did it on the basis of statistical calculations, not because they knew me personally, but nonetheless, they chose to put their faith in me and my ability to make something of myself career-wise. I am deeply grateful for their act of good faith and I am happy to uphold my end of the bargain and pay them back with interest so that they can continue in the business of making it possible for people who are not independently wealthy to get a post-secondary degree.

As I think about it, it seems kind of absurd for people who want greater social mobility to be attacking student loan companies. Such companies make it possible for anyone to pursue a college degree (well, except undocumented immigrants, the illiterate, etc.). Some people think the government (i.e. tax-payers) should simply foot the bill for everything, but to me, it seems much more logical and fair that the individual who receives the benefit of the college degree should be the one paying for it. I mean, honestly, why on earth shouldn't they?

Oh ... and ... I also have a burning need just to say: undying gratitude notwithstanding, those f***ing student loan companies are a big fat pain in the *ss to deal with.

Okay. I'm done.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Silly Heresies

If you've ever taught or attended Bible studies or other adult Christian education, you know that some people have a tendency to think themselves quite the intellectuals for coming up with pesky heretical questions--e.g. "What if 'angels' are really people? What if you're an angel and you don't know it?"

Sometimes I have found myself in the position of being an irritated classmate to such persons, sometimes I am the eager-to-explain-it-all teacher, and other times, I am that heretic, or I could be. But usually, when I have such ideas, I tend to keep them to myself, because I've learned by now that most heresies, while they may seem very clever at first, turn out upon closer investigation to be quite silly, poorly thought out, and easy but tedious to refute.

For example: I have participated in many, many a discussion about the classic formulation of the doctrine of the trinity. And I know the standard heresies. But I've always wondered, "How do we know there are only three persons in the trinity? What if there was a little known fourth person--kind of like the often-forgotten fourth Beatle? Or, since God is infinite, what if there were an infinite number of persons in the trinity--er--the 'infinity'? How can we say we know God exists only in three persons? At an earlier stage in revelation history, it was 'known' that God was one--no trinity at all--so what if someday we find out there are even more divine persons?"

Seems like a reasonable question, right? But when you start thinking about it, it's actually not that interesting or helpful. Because while it is of course possible that there could be more persons in the trinity than we know about, it's pretty much irrelevant because if they exist, they haven't been revealed to us. And the idea that deities from other religious traditions might be additional divine persons equal to the three in the trinity is, I think, ultimately a dead end, since it requires a highly artificial mixing of worldviews (that is, when Hindus, for example, talk about their pantheon, they are talking about a significantly different concept of the revelation/manifestation of God than the Christian concepts involved in explaining the doctrine of the trinity).

Furthermore, it is integral to the Christian belief system that Jesus uniquely reveals the fulness of God's glory, and that the church has preserved a faithful witness to the Christ-revelation in scripture, and that witness contains only indications of three persons in the trinity, not more.

So, anyway ... I find that heresies turn out not to be so interesting after all, and orthodoxy is really the more fascinating and compelling avenue for thought and discussion, because it contains within it so many surprising, beautiful, mysterious paradoxes. Like the classic doctrine of the trinity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Lone ... Something-Or-Other

On occasion, I have been asked to identify the role I typically play in a group--you know, for example, the peacemaker, the encourager, the executive. Well, I find that most often, I am the outsider. I have a tendency to feel out of step with everyone else, and if I see a group moving together in one direction, I tend to be the one who tries to point out everything that's wrong with what they're doing.

This came up in group work during my hospital chaplaincy internship. I realized then that being the outsider can get really lonely, and I decided I was not content to continue isolating myself in the name of being different.

Easier intended than done. But I hope I am making progress.

After I posted about the Occupy Wall Street movement yesterday, I immediately started thinking I'd been too hard on them. I could see that essentially my criticism was that they are an unorganized rabble and aren't accomplishing anything--and in the background of this criticism, my general skepticism about the typical proposed solutions of the progressive wing.

I still think "the outsider" can play an important role, and I still think it was worthwhile to publish my thoughts--I think I made a valid point, except that it was too harsh. And I couldn't help smiling when I saw the comment by "Trendsetter" that all the angry mob really needs is a good leader. I had just amended my thinking to reach that very conclusion ... (The words that came to my seminary-trained mind being, "They're like sheep without a shepherd.")

I had also been thinking, from the beginning, to write a follow up post titled "Starting With The Man In The Mirror," reflecting on how I can be the change I wish to see, and actually propose something constructive instead of just criticizing others. That's going to be a hard essay to write, because honestly, I get so overwhelmed by the complexity of everything, it feels impossible to select the best option.

But I'm starting to see how "the outsider" might someday become "a prophet." No, I have no delusions of being there yet. Clearly, I am still in the stage of being uncharitable and overly critical and isolating myself by being "different." And I appreciate everyone who has listened with patience and grace and found what was worthwhile in my "different" perspective, in spite of the unworthiness of the spirit in which I have, at times, written or spoken.

I also appreciate finding out I'm not so alone after all. My brother found this essay by someone with a clearer understanding than I had yesterday: "The Conflicting Conflicts of Occupy Wall Street" by James Pearson.

Anyway ... thank you to those who have listened for the good in what I have to say. Your gracious, respectful attitude encourages me to be kinder to others. I will try to be less of a critical outsider and strive to imitate the great compassionate prophets whose stories I know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's All Blame the Rich

I really have virtually no sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Maybe that makes me a bad person; maybe if Jesus were around today he'd be standing out there with them--I honestly don't know. The problem with asking "What would Jesus do?" is that in actuality, Jesus would probably do something unexpected and surprising to everyone.

But about the Occupy Wall Street people: if they had a coherent message and purpose, I might be out there with them in downtown L.A. right now. But they don't. Or rather, their only clear, unified message seems to be, "We blame the wealthiest less-than-one-percent of people for our economic woes. Down with the rich!"

This bothers me. It bothers me a lot. This is not responsible citizenship; it's scapegoating.

Contrary to what some believe, we actually do have something like a democracy. I saw a video of an Occupy Wall Street protester saying we need to get rid of all our elected officials. Yes, all of them. She was very clear about that when the reporter pressed her. So, we should get rid of all our elected officials and replace them with ... more elected officials? Or perhaps we should appoint a dictator? I don't think she had thought the idea through very well.

If something has gone wrong in our society, we ought to diligently search out the reasons why, not demonize a sub-group of the population and punish them.

Let me put it this way: of course the wealthy often steal from the poor. They typically do it by exacting labor without giving fair compensation. There are all manner of ways to do this, some legal, some illegal. This problem should be addressed by finding out how, specifically, employers are cheating their workers and then by amending and enforcing legislation to prevent that from happening.

More importantly, however, as we start delving into these problems, we will discover that exploitative business practices are not easy to fix, and that, in fact, they implicate us all. Take the problem of the federal minimum wage. The real value of the minimum wage has been steadily dropping for decades because of inflation, allowing employers legally to pay their workers less than fair compensation. It has not been increased because people are afraid that doing so would push more low wage jobs out of the country.

Well, let's just stop for a moment and consider who is to blame here. It is common knowledge that most of the clothing we see in stores was made in sweat shops overseas. This not a secret. The general population has some awareness that factory workers in China, Indonesia, Taiwan, etc. are expected to work in hazardous conditions, for long hours, for unreasonably low wages. But we continue buying clothes that, for all we know, may have been sewn together by a nine-year-old girl with an ulcer during the twelfth hour of her shift, earning her ten dollars a week to bring home to her starving family.

So, when we talk about the problem of factory jobs going overseas, where employers can pay ridiculously low wages, should we place all the blame on exploitative business persons and foreign governments? What about the consumers who create an on-going demand for these cheap products? Oh, wait ... that's all of us.

So let's all blame the rich ... because it's easier than taking responsibility for our own choices.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hopelessly Broken?

Recently finished The Way It Spozed To Be, by James Herndon, a memoir of his year teaching at a ninety-eight percent African-American junior high in an unnamed city in California (published in 1965). The title is altogether ironic, since Herndon sets out merely to describe the way things are, and offers no suggestions as to how they really ought to be.

So, here's the basic story:

Everyone else at the school shares a common philosophy of education: teachers must maintain as much order in the classroom as possible, because otherwise the children won't learn anything. Herndon observes that this strategy does not work, because the children are evidently learning nothing, in spite of the semblance of order the other teachers establish.

So he decides not to impose order on his classrooms. He allows the kids to do whatever they want, as long as they're not physically harming each other. He spends a lot of time thinking about what he can do to help the children learn. But he doesn't come up with any ideas. None. So he just sits back and waits to see if anything will happen by itself.

His classrooms are so chaotic, the principal talks to him about it, and so do two other teachers, and a woman from the district sent in to help him. He rejects all of their advice, since they are just trying to get him to conform to a method he knows is bankrupt.

At the end of the year, the principal lets Herndon know he won't be asked to teach there again. Herndon protests that his method has acheived a small degree of success: the kids in the social studies class spontaneously started watching some old science videos for fun (also bringing in lots of snacks, which was against school policy). And in his English class, some of the kids had gotten into reading some fairytales adapted for theatre. They were actually learning a little bit, on their own initiative.

The principal was not impressed. Herndon was fired.

In the final chapter of the book, Herndon reflects that even students in nice suburban, white, middle- to upper-class schools aren't really learning anything. They just do what they're "spozed" to, because grown-ups force them into it, and they protest less against it, but they have no real interest in what they're doing, so it doesn't stick. He suggests that there is simply no hope for change or transformation of the system, because that would require giving the children some freedom, which is the last thing the teachers and administrators (on the whole) are willing to try.

I found this book interesting. Any description of what actually goes on in a school classroom is fascinating to me, because I never experienced it myself. I feel more grateful than ever for having been homeschooled. But I also find it hard to believe that things are as hopeless as Herndon implies. Surely people have come up with ways of teaching that can better engage students and make them feel they have a vested personal interest in what they're doing.

But I really don't know hardly anything about the situation. I hope my brother, who is a teacher, will read this and have some comments.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Can't--Put--Enough--EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Seems like it always takes me a while to find out about funny hit videos on the internet. I saw the original "Double Rainbow" video and its "songified" version just yesterday. (Also the original and songified "Reality Hits You Hard, Bro"[!!!]).

Original Double Rainbow Video:

Songify This version:

Some people think the "double rainbow" guy must have been on drugs. He says he wasn't. I don't know, but I can easily imagine having a moment like that, and I've never used drugs (of the illegal sort, that is). Sure, his reaction is laughably extreme, but the camera actually does capture some of the beauty of the moment, if not the vivid brightness of the rainbow itself.

Even without the aid of mood altering substances, intense beauty really can reduce someone to a babbling, weepy kind of ecstasy--some of us just quietly keep it to ourselves, whereas others, apparently, totally let themselves go with spontaneous utterances which they later post on youtube. Well ... one's own front yard is a safer place to start crying and moaning and semi-coherently murmuring with joy than ... say ... an art museum.

Anyhoo ... "Double Rainbow" is definitely going on my personal playlist of happy songs. (-: