Thursday, August 27, 2009

How highly do you value Life?

This past weekend I watched a film called Lines that Divide which documents recent development in stem cell research. The documentary joins the bioethics debate over whether or not research using stem cells taken from human embryos is a moral hazard. Honestly I was largely uniformed about the issue prior to my viewing, which allowed me to appreciate the care taken to explain the topic. Yet, more than anything it challenged me to consider why I value life and to consider how much value I place upon it.

Unfortunately in our culture that word -- Life -- gets thrown around a lot without true care for its significance or meaning. You have it right now. You could lose it a moment from now. Ponder it's meaning. Is it existence? Is it the absence of death? Does it even end with death? Where does it really begin? These are important questions for you're daily decisions (why should you really value eating healthily?) as well as for determining the value you assign to yourself and other beings.

Before you rush to answer any of those questions, it is important to recognize that life is mysterious. There have been many attempts to unlock the secrets of this mystery, to harness it's power, to discover it's source. Science seeks to discover the truth about this mystery. In that quest scientist find opportunities to improve the quality or extend the length of our life. Yet, it seems that the more we discover about life the more we are able to manipulate it in some fashion. This has been abundantly clear with stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cells. It is this ability to manipulate life that raises the ethical questions that we can only answer after stating why we value life.

C.S. Lewis would say that we cannot answer that question outside of a moral framework, which he calls the Tao, though I'm sure many of you are more familiar with the term Natural Law. This moral framework is discovered, not developed. Lewis would say it is around us and in our hearts. It is what compels us to argue for fairness, it stimulates our knee-jerk reactions against oppression and injustice, and it screams at us when we violate another person's life. This is the first key to determining the value we place on life, namely that there is value inherent within ourselves and others that is readily apparent.

But, we must ask where does this value in life come from? Some say (I find this argument common among libertarians) that our existence gives us value. This man centered, existentialist explanation, however, leaves me unsatisfied and terrified by its implications. I'm unsatisfied because right and wrong is reduced to 'not harming others' and terrified because "existence" is difficult to define. Indeed, this is the very problem being debated in scientific circles right now -- does human existence begin at birth? at conception? as an embryo? Most say there is no clear answer. And therefore, the value placed upon an embryo, a fetus, or a human is decided on an individual basis.

I would posit that the source of life, and thus the value of life, comes from God. God speaks at creation and life begins -- Genesis 2:7 says that God "...breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." (Gen 2:7). If this informs you're understanding of life, you cannot place a high enough value on it. For the value of it is not yours to decide, it is the Creator's. If you do not affirm this position, then I would encourage you to consider reading C.S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man. He wrote it because he was concerned that the modern world (and now even more post-modernity) was losing their belief in Natural Law. He outlines the consequences of such rejection as the abolition of man.

I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the battle of man's future is being debate right now over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. There are many tangential battle's, but this is certainly one worth being informed about. Watch the documentary, think about how much and why you value life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Does Christianity make a good civil religion?

One of my last days in D.C. I spent touring the National Cathedral with a friend. A rare building for American soil, this cathedral is not as ancient as it's counterparts in Europe and the message of civil religion that emanates from the internal decorations and literature is a distinct characteristic of this national cathedral. The stain class windows portray brave American soldiers who fought valiantly in battle, while statues of famous presidents like Lincoln adorn the corner niches. The cathedral serves as an intersection of religion and the state, symbolizing the synthesis of Christianity and Americanism.

Now, the question of how religion relates to society is as old as the Greeks, but the answer and resulting social practices have changed over the centuries. More than any other nation previously, America seems most ardent in it's attempt to conflate identity as a Christian and identity as an American. Without answering whether or not this is a good thing, it is helpful to consider if Christianity really can be a good civil religion.

In the most recent issue of The American Conservative, Dr. Richard Gamble--a professor at Hillsdale College--begins his review of The American Patriot's Bible by asking, "Does Christianity make a good civil religion?" Simply put, his answer is no, it never has and it never will. To the dismay of many who believe that Christianity will revive the morally corrupt culture and imbue politics with truth Gamble asserts that, "There is no golden age of Christian America waiting to be rediscovered and reclaimed." Gamble handily deconstructs the modern evangelical attempt to synthesize Americanism with Christianity. He exposes the unfounded historical perspective that "imagines an ideal American founding on Christian principles" and "blames the nation's demise on secularist." Yet, the secularist who desires non-faith and unbelief at the center of the public square, and probably sighs with relief after such a statement, might be surprised by Gamble's analysis. Both secularist and evangelical should be asking why Christianity would be unfit as a civil religion.

The most helpful explanation of why Christianity won't redeem America, and more importantly why it should not try to, is provided by Augustine. Gamble explains,

"An Augustinian perspective may help frame that conversation. In Book XIX of The City of God, the Bishop of Hippo explained in which areas there can be peace and in which there must be conflict between the earthly and the heavenly cities. Christian and non-Christian have a common interest in earthly peace, good order, and the “necessaries of life.” But in matters of worship, Augustine wrote, the Christian was forced to “dissent” from the earthly city. The limits of the common life had been reached. The Christian was forced “to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions…” Praising piety and faith in general alongside remnants of the historic Christian faith, The American Patriot’s Bible combines the things of God and the things of Caesar at the very point where they most vigilantly need to be kept apart. When the City of Man sets up Americanism as its faith, the Christian is forced to dissent."

Christ did not intend for Christians to establish a perfect society here on earth and his call to the church is far more radical than to build a civilization on Christianity. Jesus calls Christians to be citizens of the City of God while living, serving, and participating in the City of Man. Yet, how do Christians do that in the City of Man? And what is their status in the City of Man? Are they citizens?

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, describes Christians as "unalienated aliens." This phrase recognizes the tension in a Christian's call to be in the world but not of the world. The apostle Peter in his first letter to early Christians calls them "aliens and strangers." Would a mainstream, culturally reflective, distinctively Americanized church classify themselves as aliens to their country? How would you reconcile civil religion to this description? You can't. It is important to realize that the opposite extreme of fundamentalist lambasting non-Christians and pushing a narrow political agenda is also wrong. Christians are neither mainstream chaplains or seclusive sectarians. You ask, than what does it look like to live as an unalienated alien? Peter answers this in his letter (2:12),

"Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation."

Christians should be vilified for their unwillingness to conform to culture and admired for their love and service. And this is what it means to be in the City of Man but a citizen of the City of God. Therefore, promoting a "Christian America" (aka civil religion), and hoping that we can return to an idyllic past, is not just bad history it is contrary to Christian principles

Sunday, August 16, 2009

24 hours back, and 24 things I love about California

Yesterday I returned home to the sunny state and I have a multitude of things to be thankful for now that I'm back. Here are just a few.

1 - The Weather! After a summer in hot and humid D.C., I walked out of the airport and was immediately reminded why this state, especially the Bay Area, is so amazing.

2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11, - Lydia, Hudson, Simone, Rachel, Caroline, Katie, Sarah (& Dave!), Mom and Dad.

12 - San Francisco. I spent today in the city and it is not only gorgeous but unique.

13 - The Pacific ocean breeze. I will always love the fresh smell of salt water.

14 - My house. The old Victorian thing is getting a remodel.

15 - Berkeley's Homeless. After church today, I was walking down the street and a man was yelling, "there is only one God!" And, "Jesus was just a prophet." Apparently, a Christian man was talking with some other people about Jesus and this was the first man's way of protesting. He believed in Allah. Naturally, I stopped and talked to him. He turned out to be Berkeley's resident pseudo-spiritualist Muslim and also homeless. Quite an interesting fellow, but unfortunately I had to leave after 10 mins conversation.

16 - There are places here called Yogart Land and Yogart Park. Good dessert.

17 - AMC Emery Bay Theater. And friends willing to see movies with me!

18 - My piano!

19 - Trevor.

20. - The Golden Gate. I'll never get tired of that view.

21 - Toyata Prius. They're EVERYWHERE!

22 - Telegraph Avenue. Need people variety? Go there.

23 - The sun sets over the water.

24 - All of this can happen in just 24(ish) hours.

Friday, August 14, 2009

D.C. Reflections Part 2: "don't waste your life!"

A friend and colleague of mine said those words to me after describing a disturbing experience he'd just encountered. He watched someone commit suicide. He was innocently walking down the street just blocks from our office and then it happened. A man had jumped from a building, hitting the ground just yards from my friend. Needless to say, his mind has been reeling for the last week as he copes with the trauma of witnessing such an event. And as he put it, he has been asking some "tough questions." At the very least, he has come away with the right conclusion: "don't waste your life."

For those who work in the District, a wasted life seems to not be a common worry. Like I mentioned in my last post, most people here are highly motivated and seem to have a clear direction for their life -- or at least they tell a good story of their imagined future. I'd say 90% of the people I've met have a type A personality. This is no surprise given the opportunity this city offers to satisfy the ambitious. Yet, sometimes I wonder if it really is a wasted life that people fear.

I would posit that fundamentally a meaningless life is what many, if not all of us, truly fear most. We're afraid of staying in our "boring" towns, of getting stuck in a dead-end job, or ten thousand other uninteresting life stories. Instead, we seek fame, connections, wealth, or anything else that will prevent a wasted life, that will give us satisfaction and meaning. There is nothing wrong with seeking any of those things, but is there more?

Someone named John Piper would say there is. In fact, all those other things -- wealth, fame, relationships -- he would say are empty without God. They only have true purpose in glorifying God. We only have a true purpose in glorifying God. He explains this in his book, "don't waste your life." Yet perhaps that sounds narcissistic on God's part, but if you ponder for a moment that if He is the one who gave you life, who created you and all that you know, than perhaps credit--indeed glory--is His rightful due. But is a fulfilling life, one that is not wasted, only realized in a subservient, self-abasing lifestyle? No, far from that. Piper's mantra that,"God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him," clearly speaks of something else.

It is when we are seeking to glorify God in our attitudes, words, and actions that we find meaning and satisfaction. One of my favorite passages from Scripture says, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." If we first love and delight ourselves in the Lord, then all other pursuits follow. So be ambitious, driven, and set your goals high, but love God first.

My friend witnessed a wasted life come to an end. It scared him. It would scare me. But, he has no solution. Inside him he wonders if he is any different. What if his hopes fall short and his dreams die? What if success is empty? Relationships shallow? Life wasted? And even if these things do not happen, how do you know your life is not wasted? This is what I would ask those who have sought fulfillment here in D.C. or anywhere.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

D.C. Reflections Part 1: Living in (arguably) the most powerful city in the world

As my second summer in D.C. comes to a close, I have a few departing thoughts to share over the next few days.

To anyone who has visited, read about, or lived in the District of Columbia it is obvious that it is a unique place. It truly is a powerful place, with powerful people. This fact defines everything from the ornaments that decorate the city’s landscape to the populace that walk its streets. Young, ambitious, and intelligent people fill the subway cars and office buildings. Just like Rome centuries ago, this city’s architecture and monuments set it apart from any other cityscape in the nation. Power emanates from buildings that stand prominently in view, from the Capitol at the head of the Mall to the Pentagon across the Potomac.

I had one incredible opportunity to view this city from an uncommon location, the dome of the Capitol building (Thanks Matt Stone!). From that vantage point, William Clayton took the picture in the upper right (if you want to see a larger image go to his website: As I stood up there with the Statue of Freedom herself and let my eyes wonder to familiar landmarks as far away as the National Cathedral I was struck by the thought that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but reminded of something else far more important. Power and politics wax and wane, careers blossom and then disappear, friendships draw near but often move on, yet one thing never changes. God reigns eternally.

How this affects my life is a constant struggle for me to understand. After spending pages and pages crying out, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” the author of Ecclesiastes concludes in two powerful sentences:

“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”

The man who wrote these words presided over a thriving kingdom, commanded the worlds respect as its wisest king, and enjoyed almost every pleasure the world had to offer. Yet, he called it all vanity without God. Everything I’ve done or accomplished (which isn’t much, by the way) is not measured by the power I amass, or even the fulfillment I find in it, but only by whether it is good or evil. And the metric of good or evil is not something legislated by congress, measured by an expert, or decided by the majority population. No, it is God who “will bring every act to judgment” on the final day.

Perhaps you do not believe any of this is true. Perhaps you find it unfair or abstract that some other being decides the measure of your life’s worth. Fine. But, if it is not true than what? How do you choose to live? What do you measure your life by? Power? Relationships? Fame? How do you know it is not all vanity? Think on that.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Get with the Creator yo!"

Truth is hard to come by in our culture today. Popular culture perverts it, the mainstream media distorts it, and most of us try to ignore it because we fear the responsibility of knowing the truth. Few speak out boldly by their lifestyle, their words, or their actions.

One man has chosen to speak truth in a sincere and straightforward way, but perhaps in an uncommon medium; rap. I have come to appreciate rap, though it will probably never be something I can listen to for any extended period of time. I like to describe it as poetry put to a beat. If done well it can be powerful. Lecrae, a rapper and a follower of Christ, uses it to proclaim the truth he knows.

In the album (rebel), the title to one song says it all: Truth. He unabashedly challenges our culture's acceptance that all truth is relative. He says, "If what's true for you is true for you and what's true for me is true for me, what if my truth says your's is a lie? Is it still true? Come on man!" But, this verse is my favorite.

"See, there's this thing called "Secular Humanism", it says man is the source of all meaning and all purposing. You know what i'm saying? We're just the result of a big cosmic explosion. We don't really have a purpose or meaning, so we just come up with our own purpose. We're the source of our meaning and our purpose. How can a man, which is the product of chance, a finite being be the source of purpose and meaning? You can't! You're created with purpose man! Get with The Creator yo!"

This man's life, which was broken and floundering, changed. Why? He'll tell you it was Christ his savior that reclaimed his life by the truth of Jesus' redeeming sacrifice. Now he proclaims that in his lifestyle, actions, and his music. If you do not know truth in your life, consider that you were created for a purpose. And "Get with The Creator yo!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thoughts on Burke (part 1): The Contract with Prosperity

The New York Times Columnist, David Brooks, wrote an op-ed recently titled The Power of Prosperity where he engages in an instructive thought experiment. He asks, “What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?” His full answer is worth reading, but this paragraph gives the crux of his argument.

"Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now."

I want to dwell on an important idea that Mr. Brooks alluded to: the relationship between the living, dead, and unborn. Edmund Burke famously wrote about this in his letter to the young Frenchmen Charles DePont—an enthusiastic revolutionary who had elicited Burke’s response to the revolution in France. Burke’s book length letter later became known as Reflections on the French Revolution.

In the Reflections, Burke defends the importance of heritage, protects reason from rationalism, and reminds those crying “Liberty, equality, fraternity!” that liberty is not license, justice is not equality, and fraternity has responsibility. The revolutionaries in France rejected their past heritage because they accepted Rousseau’s definition that the social contract existed merely as a commercial agreement between consenting individuals. Burke agreed that a social contract did exist, but he gave it far more meaning. He says,

“Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Simply, I believe he means that past and future, not just present, matters. If we deny the past bequeaths us any duties or posterity demands our responsibility, than we will develop a narrow individualists set of values. This “presentism” gives rise to the license and irresponsibility that dominated the French Revolution and is corroding the DNA of America. Why worry about a founding document if the culture has changed? Why reform Social Security if you will be dead before it is bankrupt? Why commit to marriage and children if it prevents immediate pleasure? Why invest in a community if you will not be here to see the fruits in the next generation? And there are many more similar questions that could be asked.

We are indebted to Mr. Burke for standing athwart the doctrinaire radical who wants change for the mere sake of change, and thus destroys the contract between God and man and between the generations of mankind. If Burke were asked to evaluate the thought experiment at the beginning of this post, I believe he would say: “The whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of summer." And that is why we must remember our contract with prosperity.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Do you live for your Reputation?

As I step onto the stage and voice my opinion, I cannot help but wonder – who is listening (or reading)? And what do they think? More personally, what do they think of me? I care, like every other human being, what people think of me. I behave, talk, or even alter my posture in the elevator to maintain some ideal reputation – automatically, almost without thinking. Today, after reading the quote below by John Piper, I spent the rest of the day considering how many times my actions and attitudes are dictated by some ideal reputation that I imagine myself having and which I seek to perpetuate. After reading the quote, ask yourself, “What reputation do I live for?”

What men think of us can burden or brighten our days. But it is of little account in the end. A good name among people may be better than great riches now, but neither name nor riches will survive the fire of [God’s] crucible. Truth is all that will matter. Not money or man’s opinion.

John Piper, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ

Monday, August 3, 2009

Social Networking Part 1: Facebook vs. Myspace

Ever wonder why people started using Facebook instead of MySpace? Perhaps you use both, but you probably favor one. Some recent research suggests that your use of Facebook or Myspace reflects your socio-economic class.

When Facebook started at Harvard in 2004, Myspace dominated the online social networking world (which was tiny compared to today, but growing quickly). Originally limited to just college students by requiring a valid university email address, Facebook held a reputation of exclusivity for the first couple of years. Myspace's open registration attracted all types, however, and it was the "in thing" to join for teenages by 2005. When Facebook opened up its registration so anyone could join in September 2006 an important transition occurred. It seemed every high school student was flocking to the new site, attracted by the opportunity to network with older, 'cooler' college students at universities they would soon be attending. It turns out, however, that not all teenagers made an exodus to Facebook, or if they were just joining social networking they did not necessarily choose Facebook over Myspace.

Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, tackles the question of how these two social networks developed. Danah's main discovery in her research, and the proposition she advances in this essay is this: the social networking sites of Facebook and Myspace reflect the socio-economic class divisions evident in real society. Therefore, as Danah explains in a recent speech, a teenager’s choice of a site depended heavily on what socio-economic class they were in. As she admits, this is a sticky and often muddled issue, but an important one to think about.

Fundamentally, the divide (albeit murky) between Facebook and Myspace reveals that humans will almost always connect with and seek out others like them. In our lives we tend to build the closest relationships with people who share our values, like the same books, listen to similar music, etc. Is this wrong? No, I don't think so. Is it worth thinking about? Of course, we already do it all the time. But, how and why you make friendships is an important question you should ask yourself. Online social networking has exploded as an outlet for relationship building, to the point where many of us will say (only half-jokingly), "We're not friends until its official on Facebook."

I plan to consider next how the phenomenon of online social networking is shaping our daily lives and defining the culture of the 21st century.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is the News as we know it about to disappear?

People process varying amounts of news everyday, some are addicted to it others ambivalent, but no one can avoid it entirely. Yet, how we receive news and what type of news is delievered could changing dramatically very soon. Indeed, it already has changed. The internet has revolutionized American's way of life in the past 15 years in a wirlwind of creative destruction that has opened new markets and transformed industries. The news business has been no exception.

Traditional modes of mass producing news no longer dominate the industry. Traditional methods of journalism no longer seem essential. The emergence of the blogosphere and other low-cost alternative news sources, like the drudgereport or the Huffington Post, have undercut the revenue stream by diverting readership away from previous news giants. Print newspapers are particularly threatened as fewer readers subscribe for home delievery. Journalist wonder if they will have a job in their industry in 10, maybe even 5 years. It is not an outlandish question to ask if news as we know it is about to disappear, or at least drastically alter in form.

But if not that, than what? What will news look like in the future? Will it be the immediacy of twitter feeds? The diverse but opinionated blogs? How will they produce revenue? I find the most compelling suggestion to be The Nichepaper. This type of paper could reinvent what 'news' actually is. The author of the article I linked to says,

Nichepapers aren't a new product, service, or business model. They are a new institution. They're a living example of the institutional innovation that is the key to 21st century business. They're not the same old newspaper, sold a different way. They are 21st century newspapers, built on new rules, that are letting radical innovators reinvent what "news" is.

Yet, Nichepapers are only one possible business model for the future. Chris Anderson, editor in cheif for Wired Magizine, explains in an interview that the internet's challenge to the traditional press might force most news to be free. Perhaps it will be reported by part-timers contributing whatever local knowlege they have combined with others analyzing and filtering it for the masses. Its hard to imagine an industry that is so interwhoven into the daily lives of most people changing so fundamentally. But, perhaps it is because news is so inseperable from most people's existence that the industry is being forced to change.