BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

The Economy of Attention

“Title” by Dude, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licsense.
Photo Credit: Stephen Poff. Creative Commons License.

What if you had all the attention in the world? What would you do with all that attention?

(What do those questions even mean? Do they mean, “if I had everybody’s attention at my disposal” or do they mean “if I could give attention to everything I wanted to”?)

Quick economics lesson: economics is the study of a human behavior, taking as a starting point the scarcity of the factors of production necessary for humans to get what they want. The scarce factors of production studied by economics are labor, capital, and resources.

But if I may indulge myself in a thought experiment, what would our economic models look like if we factored into the mix of scarce factors, the factor of attention?

I mean, we talk about attention in economic terms already. We are often asked to pay attention. Attention deficit disorder is a thing. Information overload seems to be just another kind of surplus, something that sounds great from one perspective but, just like how a surplus of labor is really unemployment or a surplus of money is really just inflation, an information overload reduces our ability to think clearly, throws our minds out of equilibrium.

I am apparently not the first person to think of such an idea (thanks, Google, for reminding me that I am not as original as I thought I was). In 2002, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published a book called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, and in 2007 Richard Lanham came out with The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. There is a Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy — but all the sources cited are at least five years old.

Why Thomas, John and Richard and their readers stopped the conversation then and there is beyond me. Maybe because the years that followed were the years that Facebook and Twitter really took off, and they all signed up for accounts which they now are all distracted by (although, certainly those services underscore the fundamental importance of attention all the more!). Or maybe they just decided that attention, like entrepreneurship, is just another type of labor, just in the same way information is just another type of resource or perhaps even capital.

Can we have that conversation again though? It seems to me that the scarcity of attention is an important enough topic that it warrants, well, our attention.

How to Get Attention

It dawned on me on the other day that I am employed in the attention economy. Whether it is middle schoolers or influential public figures, I go to work each day trying to figure out how to influence people so that they pay attention.

I could probably write an entire post on how to get people’s attention, and it would probably get people’s attention. I could elaborate on the following tips and tricks:

Be quality. Be concise. If you have to go beyond 140 characters, write with the cadence of pop music, with plenty of lyrical hooks. Be visual. Be active. Be attractive. Use innuendo – reveal enough to spark their interest, conceal enough to keep them wanting more. Be loud. Be fussy. Be charming. Turn the lights off and on. Use suspense to your advantage. But don’t be vague or esoteric. Make lists. Make a sign. Get this guy to hold your sign. Make a list of guys holding signs. Be timely, not timeless. It is easy to get the attention of a narcissist – just make it all about them. Have you considered sending a notification?

It is important to realize, not all attention is the same. A single thing may capture a person’s entire concentration, or it may simply be a multitasker’s background noise. Attention may convey love, it may invade personal space. Attention may be given to a task of mental endurance, it may also be given to a distraction. There is a certain value in having the attention of the intended audience, and yet a different value in having the attention of an eavesdropper or a passersby.

Know what kind of attention you want + figure out how to get it = formula for success.

How to Pay Attention

The powers that be are going to want our attention, because our attention is productive. Sometimes we will get goods and services in exchange for our attention (fill out this survey, get entered into a sweepstakes to win an iPad mini) (here are some flowers, will you go out with me?). Sometimes we can’t help but pay a fleeting moment of attention (to a billboard on the interstate) (to that provocatively dressed individual).

But then there are some things that inherently are worth our attention, but have trouble asking for it (like buried treasure) (like the one with the shy smile, sitting across the room).

Mastering the art of paying attention is perhaps our best shot at making it in the world.

Know what you want to give attention to + figure out how to give it = formula for success.

At the after school tutoring program I work to coordinate, during a day where the middle schoolers were particularly rowdy, one of the tutors gave the youth a lesson in how to pay attention. “Keep your mouth quiet, look at me with your eyes, and listen to me with your ears.”

Hopefully when they are in high school, they will learn the advanced arts of paying attention: nodding their head with an occasional “mmhmm”, choosing to pursue those who are neglected, and asking responsive and appropriate questions.

Best after school tutoring lesson ever.

On Defense

There is a lot of noise out there, some of it competing for our attention, and some of it directed at others but we can’t help but be distracted by it. Some of the noise that comes emanates from really valuable stuff – friends and family and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – but the timing is all off, the noise fractures our attention into worthless fragments.

In the rush to get attention and to give attention, we need to take an occasional breather. It sounds cliché, probably because it is common argument for anyone who is trying to get your attention, but we need to focus on the things that really matter. And to do that, we need to create the right kind of space.

I have a number of friends who have gone off to work at some sort of camp for the summer (I used to be one of them). They are off to work in places where cell phones don’t work and the news isn’t breaking, to create places that people enjoy coming to – not simply because they are fun, but because they are an escape.

These camps are defensive places, places where our thoughts can settle and the things that really do matter can rise to the top. We can give people, ideas, and tasks our undivided attention. For those who work there, they can experience the incredible thrill of doing one thing in one place for a long time – the feeling of having life flow.

What about the rest of us, those of us stuck in the city, or, rather, stuck in the routines and the noise? How are we to play defense?

I simply don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one good, solid answer. I suppose I’ll have to give the question a little more thought.

On Devotion

Attention is ephemeral. Once you have it, you have to spend it. There is no bank, no warehouse, no armory in which attention can be stored for later use. People will have heard your point, listened to your song, done what you asked them to do. They are going to move on; you are now yesterday’s news.

But what happens when they come back? With no hand-waving, no yelling, no new signs, no external incentive of cash-back or a candy bar? Not because they are curious if you have anything new or novel or different, or because they are addicted, or because they want to squeeze a little bit more value out of what you already given, but, because, well, they just came back?

This is the phenomenon of devotion – a loyal and active (intentional) exercise of focus and dedication, directed towards either someone or something.

Devotion, in economic terms, is a kind of capital good. Devotion is durable, devotion is man-made, devotion can transform simple things into something incredible. If attention is a nail, a package, a steak, some gasoline, or a question, then devotion is a hammer, a forklift, a grill, a car, an encyclopedia.

Notice that we show devotion, we don’t pay devotion. Devotion, unlike attention, does not have an ephemeral, transactional quality. The one who shows devotion will remain devoted; the one who experiences devotion trusts that this time is not meant to be the last.

For these very reasons, devotion is powerful. The same powers that be that want our attention would kill for our devotion — if only they could. The problem is, there is no way they can get it. Because devotion is not transactional, no level of incentive (or degree of threat) could ever wrestle devotion away from a person.

If mastering the art of paying attention is actually our best shot at making it in the world, then mastering the art of showing devotion would seem to be an important part of not being overcome by the world. If we learn how to develop devotion, express devotion, appropriate devotion, we may actually end up being unstoppable.

What if you had all the devotion in the world? What would you do with all that devotion?

Will Work for Attention” by Stephen Poff, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The Economy of Attention

Upward trends got you down?: Climate, Debt, and the Future

Graphs are some of the most obnoxious ways of proving a point. I mean, think about having a friendly debate with someone who has come up with “statistical proof” for their argument. Your buddy suddenly thinks they are, like, infallibly right and you’re like “omg-just-shut-up-already.”

In that spirit, I have two graphs I want you to look at.

United States Federal Debt (via Wolfram Alpha)

Global CO2 Levels (via Wolfram Alpha)

It occurred to me the other day that these two graphs, the first being about the United States debt situation and the second being about the global climate crisis, have roughly the same shape. Although both of the above graphs are alarming enough, they also come in hockey stick versions that austerity hawks and enviros often point to for the sake of a rhetorical power play.

So it got me thinking, what else could these two issues have in common? What are some key differences? And so what?

First though, a quick lesson on what each of these graphs mean.

The United States Federal Debt Debacle

Debt, whether a credit card swipe or a government bond, is a strategy of borrowing from the future to take advantages of opportunities in the present. Sure, when done indiscriminately, it can shackle debtors to the past. It can also become a weapon of oppression when the lenders find ways to work the system. But there is nothing inherently bad about debt done responsibly.

Our political system, however, has recently been on the fritz about our federal government’s increasing debt, with campaigners often blaming their favorite public enemy for what has been a bipartisan flop. There is legitimate concern – larger debts are not just more expensive to pay off than smaller ones, but interest charges are also more burdensome the larger the debts.

That said, last-minute political brinksmanship, like we saw with the New Year’s Day decision on the fiscal cliff, is equally (if not more) dangerous than an unjustifiable increase in spending or unfortunate decrease in revenue. The moment a credit agency like Moody’s perceives risk in holding United States federal government debt, interest rates will rise for future debt, compounding the problem.

The Global Climate Crisis

Just like debt, carbon dioxide is not inherently a bad thing. It has its chemical role to play in the cycles of the natural world. If a little bit gets into the atmosphere, from, say, a forest fire or a volcanic eruption, that is not a horrible situation.

The problem is that a lot is getting into the atmosphere, due to the reckless human use of fossil fuels – geological stores of energy unceasingly being released. And above-normal levels of carbon dioxide (along with other greenhouse gases) trap above-normal levels of infrared heat into the planet, with the potential to cause serious imbalances in earth’s natural cycles. The scientific consensus appears to be pretty clear in this department.

As far as political solutions go, there are plenty of ideas but not a lot of willpower. Part of the problem is that the global climate crisis is, well, global. To come up with an agreement where every nation gives up something, and no nation gets a free ride into a better future, is, well, impossible, at least without a spark of idealism.

What do these graphs have in common?

Seeing as these are both upward trends, with no sign of slowing down, it looks as if the consequences are going to be billed to future generations. I use the word “future” loosely. I don’t mean the unborn to come, but those who have come after the decades of decisions that got us into these messes. “Future” could reasonably encompass a good chunk of everyone under the age of 60, and it most certainly includes my Millennial generation and the Gen Z kids I work with.

But! While the price we have to pay is going to be steep, the future generations need to acknowledge the fact that we will get to reap at least some rewards. While the most recent uptick in the federal debt is due less to increased spending and more to depressed revenues, we cannot take for granted the things federal spending has provided us – infrastructure, security, education and apparently now affordable health care.

On the climate change side of things, I think enviros have often struggled to articulate the advances that cheap, quick and accessible energy have given us. If historical fossil fuel use was ⅓ the current amount, for one small example, I doubt you would have the computer/smartphone/tablet you are now using to read these words. We can think of the era of fossil fuels as a stimulus package for the civilization project; now the trick is to keep the fruits of technological prowess while kicking the habit of unsustainably using a limited, polluting resource.

One day fossil fuels will be history. The question will be - what was their legacy?
One day fossil fuels will be history. The question will be – what was their legacy?

What are some key differences?

In the worst of all scenarios, the Feds could reasonably default on their loans and admit to bankruptcy. It would likely be the end of the American nation as we know it, but life would go on. But when we talk about climate change, using the worst of all scenarios that the scientific models have been able to come up with, we can’t be so sure that life would go on.

But let’s not talk about worst-case scenarios. Let’s talk about present political strategies for tackling this problem. In the case of our debt, we have a strict debt ceiling, a seemingly commonsense solution that instead of sparking productive dialogue now appears to be drawing us dangerously close to the even worse problem of defaulting. The opposite is true for climate: we do not put any legal stock whatsoever in “carbon ceilings” like 350ppm or +2°C.

Tackling our debt requires what Americans fear may be impossible: bipartisanship. But tackling the climate crisis requires what may be an even crazier sort of cooperation: international agreements. There simply is no global system of governance that can streamline this process.

I’m not suggesting we need to implement a world government-bureaucracy. That sort of concentration of power, in fact, seems too dangerous to be worthwhile. But the longer we let the climate crisis fester, the more likely we are going to resort to this sort of extreme measure, an unprecedented sacrifice of national sovereignty.

We don’t want that. We need to get creative. Now.

So what?

I’m not going to draw crass utilitarian lines in the sand and say which of these two problems is worse. You’re free to draw your own conclusions in that department, and, for that matter, let your conclusions reflect your original prejudices. It is an apples and oranges comparison; the important thing is acknowledging that they are both fruit. (Quite frankly, the fruit basket is becoming quite full with all the right stuff, with the bananas of gun obtainment reform and the tomatoes of immigration reform now making their appearance).

Correlation does not mean causation, and I believe that is true in the case of these dangerous upward trends. If there is a common cause, it is a cultural propensity to thoughtlessly consume with a view averted to the future. And if it is a cultural thing, no political silver bullet exists that can strike through the heart of both the debt debacle and the climate crisis.

But there is something that can be a partial win-win. A carbon tax, or a levy on emissions of carbon dioxide, is an idea with growing support across the political spectrum. It can help to turn both of these upward trends into mere plateaus.

First, a carbon tax is a just initiative society should just be doing anyways. It is the economic concept of externalities. We get fined for littering, we have to pay for our recycling (whether directly or indirectly), we should have to pay for our carbon emissions.

Second, a carbon tax also raises revenue. Yes, that will make some things more expensive. But, unlike an income tax, a carbon tax will not make productive activity less lucrative. Which is a darn good thing for making payments on our national debt.

Third, a carbon tax, by raising the price of fossil fuel use, gives the innovative free-market something to chew on when it comes to finding clean (and practical) energy solutions and promoting efficiency measures. This might even prove to be a long-term boost to the economy, again increasing revenues and decreasing the debt. The sooner a carbon tax is implemented, the greater the return from this “investment” will be.

It might be possible to see Congress pass a carbon tax sometime this year. Granted, Congress has a nasty track record as of late, but a (well-implemented) carbon tax still strikes me as possible.

Because there is one point I don’t need a graph to prove: we need to address these problems sooner or later. We have a need, as a society, to behave responsibly. And that shouldn’t be all too difficult.

Upward trends got you down?: Climate, Debt, and the Future

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Save for the Olympics and whatever bowl game the Oregon Ducks get into, I almost never put the effort into working my schedule around televised sports. Just not my jam.

But Monday night, one of the low-key evenings in the life of a fresh college grad, in addition to a few mindless e-mails to send off and a simple word document to create, I figured I might as well catch the Packers versus Seahawks football game. A nice, civilized contest of Midwest brawn versus Pacific Northwest brute, that I would be sure many of my friends would be talking about.

And then this happened:


Unless you somehow missed all the ensuing news coverage, you would know that his not just a matter of game-ending frenzy wrapped up in an ambiguous call. Rather, it came in the midst of a strike on the part of the NFL Referees Association, and the season so far has been carried out by “replacement refs” of dubious credentials.

The NFL reached a deal with the “real refs” just in time for tonight’s game, the Browns versus Ravens. But it got me wondering, what was the big fuss?

There were two sorts of sports pundits in Monday’s post-game coverage. About half were so excited that they had something uniquely interesting to talk about the words just spilled right out of their mouth, the other half were so irked by what had happened that, when it was their turn to speak, they spoke impromptu jeremiads. One pundit, trying to establish how much of a “real deal” this was, said something to the affect of the NFL being a “multi-billion dollar enterprise, with millions of dollars resting on each call like this being made.” Another simply said, “the shield has to defend itself.”

Between the lines, I felt like each of this latter group of men, each of whom have spent years and careers as fans, players, coaches, and now commentators, were saying “my life is wrapped up in something that is looking a lot like a fraud.”

There is a brand-new pigskin hanging around our front room. Recently, when I came back home, exhausted from a solid workout, I laid down on the couch and picked up the this official, composite-leather, not-incredibly-round ball. I realize I speak from my own prejudice as a runner, where the sport is as simple as getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, but as I palmed “the Duke” I was struck by how lifeless it seemed.

Lifeless, of course, compared to the fan-packed stadiums, the enthusiastic cheerleaders, the calculating coaches, and the players’ incredible feats of athleticism. Lifeless for something that a third of the country takes as a national holiday one Sunday each February. Lifeless for something that, at least at the high school level, has become a medium for entering into larger social issues – think of the non-sexy parts in Friday Night Lights, the race relations of Remember the Titans, and I have to give a McMinnville shout-out to the self-explanatory Quarterback Princess. With so much energy and passion surrounding the game, it seems strange that the football just by itself can seem so dull and unanimated.

It is easy to become disenchanted.

It is easy to become cynical.

It is easy to want to analytically break everything down to component parts.

The same gamble the NFL is took with replacement refs is the same gamble governments take when politicians act contrary to the law, or the law works contrary to the people. It is the same gamble churches and other religious groups take when betraying the truths they supposedly preach. It is a gamble of legitimacy, that the whole shebang might be exposed as a dirty power-play to manipulate the imagination of the masses.

Which may be true, although I sincerely hope against it in every case. What I want, instead, is to believe that synergy exists, and that synergy can be put to good cause.

I think of the human body as a perfect example of synergy. Our bodies are something like 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, and then a bunch of other trace stuff. But you cannot say that we are nothing but these elements – there is something fundamentally different between a human body and a water puddle with a block of carbon on the side. Rather, these atoms are in relationship to one another in such a way that they create something of greater value (that is, the human body) than what they would have been on their own.

I am currently reading through Christian Smith’s rather dense but apparently important book What is a Person?. In chapter one he makes quite the argument for personhood, saying that the human person is not simply the human body, but rather the formula goes something like person = human body + cultural context + rational thought + a bunch of other things. And there is something about the “person” which is greater than all of these things combined.

Furthermore, I think that when two human persons become united in marriage, the whole process of “two becoming one” is less 1+1=1 and more 1+1=3. That is, neither partner really gives up their individual identity, but now they have created a new, shared identity that exists as a dynamic addition to who they were originally.

(Hm. This may be the most-off topic rant about the whole Seahawks-Packers touchdown debacle.)

Just like how the institution of marriage is synergistic, I think the institutions of sports and politics and religious affairs are synergistic. Imagine that lifeless football laying in my front room, in the hands of a much more skilled player than myself, on a proper field and perhaps even with a proper crowd. The oddly shaped ball, which kind of resembles an uncomfortable turd, becomes a key part of what is not just a multi-billion dollar empire, but a game which (in varying degrees) is a meaningful part of many of our lives.

All the more reason then that the NFL needs qualified refs on the field maintaining order, to keep the football from being lifeless, meaningless leather. All the more reason government need qualified politicians maintaining law and respect, why sacred places need qualified priests to keep sacraments alive and devotees in worship. When all the pieces come together, something magical happens, synergy happens.

Call it all an illusion if you want, but don’t complain when I call you a puddle of hydrogen and oxygen.

The important thing, of course, is not whether or not synergy exists, but what the synergy is directed towards. This is, I think, a test of the true mettle of a leader and their organization – not the component parts of her or his organization, but how they make those component parts work together and for what purpose. Governments can join in unjust wars, churches can become overly judgmental, and football leagues can needlessly sacrifice the beauty of the game for a quick dollar or two.

But, unfortunately, some leaders cannot get to the step of deciding what to direct the synergy towards, because they are stuck making decisions that jeopardize the existence of that very synergy. They get hung up on some details and neglect others. This goes beyond the decision to hire lousy refs in order to minimize expenses, but also what takes place in corrupt politics and cult churches.

I guess what I am getting to is this. If you are a follower, and we all are followers sometimes, accept the reality of synergy. Don’t say “it is nothing but,” because that contributes nothing but cynicism to the discussion. And if you are a leader, and we are all leaders sometimes, accept the responsibility of synergy. Cultivate it, direct it. Do something good with it. Please.

This Week in Football, and Thoughts on Synergy

Portlandia in Christian Conversion

Before I get to Portland, I need to start in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is a theologian there by the name of Kä Mana, who tells the story of a traditional African priest meeting with the head of the Catholic mission. The traditional priest had seen not only the truth in this “gospel of Jesus Christ” but witnessed how it had grabbed a hold of  and brought a new energy onto his entire village. One day, after communion had been served at the mission, the traditional priest looked his Catholic counterpart in the eye and said, “I know that one day or the other, your ‘sacrifice’ will replace mine, the word of Jesus Christ will replace my ancestral and ancient word without destroying it. I am going to die a happy man because I know there will always be a sacrifice made in our village. That is very important. I hand over to you. Continue with what our ancestors started, and of which I was the high priest.”

This “gifting of culture” is what could be called a conversion story. I was at a seminar on contextual theologies last year, where Andrew Walls (a wise old guy with a British accent) gave the opening lecture. According to Walls, conversion is less about content (some would call dogma) and more about direction. Conversion is turning what is already there, in terms of culture and tradition, towards Christ, instead of starting from scratch.

“Thanks to Christ,” Kä Mana says, “we can look at ourselves as we are in the founding myths of our destiny, to discover that we are neither angels nor demons, but human beings in search of the meaning of our existence, building our society by promoting the positive values of life, and by fighting against the negative values of death that are permanently interwoven with them.”

This all has to do with Portland, at least in my perspective. I am wrapping up a summer of living in a hub of the Rose City’s network of intentional Christian communities, doing some Sunday morning church hopping, and coming back from runs with a free (and sweaty) copy of the Portland Tribune in hand only because the front page read “Black ministers lead push against city’s gang violence” or (more relevant to this piece) “Will churches survive in land of vegans, nature lovers?”. My hunch is that these same ideas about “conversion of culture” work just as well in the post-Christian Portland, Oregon context as they do in the pre-Christian African village.

Yes, a statue like this can be found in “post-Christian” Portland.

I do want to be careful however, as Portland is a quite heterogeneous city. Even if my Chicago friends assail Portland for its supposed lack of diversity, there are still many local subplots that represent real, alive and breathing, human beings. For the sake of simplicity (this is a blog post, nothing more), I am going to focus on one dominant strand of local narrative; the quirky, youthful, thoughtful vision of a deliberately different lifestyle that has been captured and defined by the TV series Portlandia.

From the state that brought the nation bottle recycling, I think it makes sense to talk about “redemption value” when speaking of what the American church has to gain by being present in Portlandia. This essentially post-Christian culture is a space to explore, not a vacuum to (re)fill. Kä Mana thinks the church in Africa can become the “theatre for the globalisation of love and humanness”, similarly, I think the Portlandian church has something positive to spread throughout the larger American church. The surface was scratched when Donald Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz, reflecting on his experiences at Reed College, but there is much more to go.

To be clear to my non-Christian friends happening to read this, I am not talking about proselytization or weird strategies on how to effectively save souls. This is a conversation addressed towards the church about how engagement with the Portlandia ethos can help the American church be a better church. I don’t know why you would be interested, but feel free to eavesdrop.

Let me get started with some eavesdropping of my own. Someone who (by outlook if not presently by geography) qualifies as Portlandian, stated “Life is absurd. God is love. We are free.” This simple statement struck me as a near-perfect statement of Portlandian spirituality. It is this mantra that I want to explore further (and if you happen to be the one who wrote this mantra, you are totally welcome to claim it. I would apologize for not asking, but I think you’re cool with it.)

Life is absurd.

For some, this is the existential statement par excellence, the motto of the stereotypical Portland State philosophy student with Camus in one hand and a cigarette (or not, but whatever it is it rhymes with not) in the the other.

The Christian apologist would contend that the observation of absurdity implies some sort of yardstick on which to measure such a statement. Can’t see shadows without sunshine, can’t see absurdity without order. Rightfully so, but the clever Portlandian (and she is clever) does not automatically assume God’s name is on this yardstick. Instead, she will point to the mountains as her measure, those glacial rocky spires mocking our downtown skyscrapers of Babel. Skyscrapers which, by the way, may be revealed as mere sandcastles when the big one hits.

Continue reading “Portlandia in Christian Conversion”

Portlandia in Christian Conversion