BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

Now available for download: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay”

NEW VoOM coverA little under two years ago, my professor challenged me to find a way to decimate some of the ideas I had developed in a senior thesis.

A little over a year ago, I challenged myself to think bigger than a blog post. 1,000 words every couple of weeks was neat, but what if I strung those together? What could I come up with? Could I do 10,000 words? 20,000 words?

And then I decided to put those two challenges together. The final result, and my excuse for not blogging lately, is now live and available for download at Amazon.com.

There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in just bringing “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay” to fruition. The thing, for better or worse, is littered with running metaphors, but I have to use one more: it feels a bit like completing my first half-marathon. Who cares about the final time. I crossed the finish line, and that is great in and of itself.

But, of course, I would love it if people were to read this essay. If they were to discuss it, critique it, embrace it, share it. I believe the ideas in this essay matter, and I do not think I could have succeeded in finishing this essay if it was not for this belief, however naive this belief may ultimately turn out to be.

So, towards that end, I am offering the essay for free over the next couple of days. (Soon, it will have to be priced at $3.00, to appease the Amazon.com gods and additionally help pad my rather lean wallet). If you download it for free and read it and say, “hey, that’s great, wish I paid the poor kid something for this” I would love it if you went back online and gifted a copy to a friend.

If you feel led, “four star” or “five star” reviews also warm my heart. Heck, I’ll appreciate one or two star reviews if you read the full thing and take me seriously.

What’s this essay about, you ask? Well, according to my publisher (aka me):

When it comes to culture, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideas, or just people in general, American Christians in the 21st century have found themselves caught in an unprecedented flood of diversity. Rather than something to escape from or merely tolerate, this sudden rush of strange and new things should be seen as an exciting gold rush with which we can enrich both our individual lives and our lives together. To join in on this adventure, however, we need to equip ourselves with the proper tool — “the virtue of open-mindedness.”

Author Kaleb Daniel Nyquist gives an account of the virtue of open-mindedness that is both personal and theoretical, theological and practical. It is a journey that meanders through the forests of Oregon, the streets of Chicago, the sidewalks of India, a Sunday School classroom, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many hair-pulling trips to the university library. Mashing together ideas from Aristotle, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and even Jesus of Nazareth, he puts together a model of the virtue of open-mindedness that just might help American Christians (and whoever else cares to listen in) navigate our strange, beautiful, broken and interconnected world.

You literally have nothing to lose. Apologies for the aggressive sales pitch, but you are going to waste more time thinking about downloading it (or not) than actually downloading it.

Check it out here.

(By the way, if you don’t have an actual Kindle, don’t worry. Amazon.com has Kindle apps for your computer, tablet, internet browser and smartphone. Problem solved.)

Aside

Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

Finances are spiritual issues. Budgets are moral documents. Are economic beliefs, then, theological statements?

In the introduction to their book How Much Is Enough?, a critique of systems of political economy geared towards blind growth, father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky admit that their entire vision of a better society ultimately rests on “a declaration of faith” (p.10, emphasis added).  They claim that “[t]o go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another” (p. 123, emphasis added). They praise Catholic social teaching  for moderating “against [both] state socialism and unrestrained capitalism” (p. 186), in addition to further comments on Christian Scripture, the Dharamsūtras of Brahman India, the Confucius and Tao philosophies of ancient China, and the contemporary pseudo-religion of Gaia.

They mention the theological bearings of great economists. They note that while John Maynard Keynes’ work focused on the gears and whistles of capitalism, Keynes always had “religion under the surface,” holding onto the hope that reckless capitalism would eventually pass away and usher in “the heaven of art, love, and the quest for knowledge” (p. 17). They reference Adam Smith’s rather detached view of God, (aka: “The Great Director of the Universe”), who “has merely set the machinery [of economics] in motion, leaving it to self-love to work its benefits” (p. 50).

With those quotes from How Much Is Enough? in mind, I want to make what may seem like a surprising turn to An Altar in the World, written by Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Like the Skidelskys, Taylor is interested in questions of what the good life looks like, but she comes to these questions through the lens of personal spirituality rather than political economy.

Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.
Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.

Humor me this and read this quote of Taylor’s on the “spiritual practice” of paying attention to the “sacrament” of a mail-order catalog:

“First, there are the people who produced the catalog—the designers, the photographers, the models, and the copyeditors—along with the people who produced the goods inside. Some of those people live in Mexico and others in the Phillipines. In China, where cashmere goats are bred to produce sweaters for American consumers, traditional grasslands are so overgrazed that thousands of square miles turn to desert each year. If you could lay a laminated map of the world on the floor and put a pin in every place where something in that mail-order catalog came from, you might be amazed at how prickly the map became.” (p.31)

Got that? Good, because now compare that to this excerpt from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, where, instead of pins on a map, he is dropping exclamation points over his description of the assembly of a piece of clothing:

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! (I.1.11)

Save for Taylor’s reference to nature resource overuse, both Taylor and Smith are saying the same thing, that there is an incomprehensible economic wonder caused by the division of labor.

In fact, Taylor probably did not do this intentionally, but throughout her chapters discussing various spiritual practices, she has a coherent (although not systematic) economic doctrine of her own regarding the concept of work, the factor of production sometimes called labor.

“Work,” Taylor says, “connects us to other people,” using the examples of the customer service agent and the oft-overlooked school custodian (p.114-115). The idea here is that the fruits of our labors are not often for us to enjoy; and, if I may run away with the text, the implication is that the whole purpose of economic theorizing is less about making a profit and more about understanding the fabric of human relations to each other.

But while Taylor affirms the value of work, she also moderates this claim. She laments the loss of Sabbath culture in the American South, starting in the 1960s when “gross domestic product had become the foremost indicator of the nation’s health and well-being” (p.128). With her elegant prose, she explains her logic: “[b]y interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying in picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.” (p.131).

Taylor goes even further, describing when a blizzard ripped through town and stranded her and her husband on their Georgia farm. With no road and no electricity, the author had to put down her pen and become a physical laborer for the sake of her survival and the survival of those around her (p. 143). The lessons learned from those days become a two-pronged reflection on the value of physical labor and on exceeding one’s self-interest, admitting that “the people who do these things for a living are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If American culture admitted to caste, then these laborers would be the shudras” (p.146).

There is much more to say on Taylor’s concept of labor, but I have to stop there for the sake of bringing my thoughts full circle. Suffice it to say that Taylor could not talk spirituality without stumbling upon economics. And while this seems to happen mostly in the background, Taylor does at least once bring it straight to the forefront, claiming that “[i]f Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (p.131).

I don’t know what to make of the sex piece, but if Taylor is claiming that God is interested in economics, there are economists who are quite interested in (some sort of) God. The Skidelskys, in the second-to-last paragraph (so, rhetorically speaking, they really do mean it) of their entire book on money and the good life, write the following personal ad, albeit in reserved academic prose:

The basic goods…are not logically dependent on any single religious doctrine, but their realization is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide. Most of the liberal reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Christians; others were among those who, as Keynes said of himself, “destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.” Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it. (p.218)

It may seem like a match made in heaven, but I think Christians need to pause for a moment and realize the implications of such an opportunity. How can we frame this not so that the church is a pawn of human progress, but rather that a healthier economics is the consequence of the church living into its mission of being a foretaste of things to come, being the salt of the earth?

Continue reading “Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief”

Aside

Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather

“Hurricane Sandy & Marblehead [Front Street 9]” by Flickr user Brian Birke, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
I am no climate scientist. I have no authority to claim that climate change was a significant factor in causing Hurricane Sandy, the “frankenstorm“, although much of what I have been reading sees a strong case for the linkage. Never mind this summer, where a number of people were puzzling over the possibility that one of the ten worst US droughts of the past century was correlated with climate change.

I do, however, grow worried when freak weather gets too closely linked to climate change. Or, rather, when freak weather becomes the only time we feel concern over the slow, gradual damage we are doing to the planet.

Why do I worry?

Because weather is only a day-to-day thing, and even if we got CO2 down to a perfect number of parts-per-million, freak weather would still be a once-every-couple-of-years thing. All the while, we live with our climate every day. Even on the pleasant days of scattered clouds and warm temperatures, our finely-tuned Earth is being knocked out of equilibrium. Icecaps and glaciers are disappearing from the only place they belong, while deserts are popping up where they should not be. With sea levels rising and coral reefs dying, the equivalent of dozens of frankenstorms are happening gradually each year, and (thanks to the hard work of numerous scientists) in plain sight (although we are too self-absorbed to see it).

Because some years ago I spent three weeks in New Orleans and the surrounding area. From that experience, I still flinch at the environmentalist take-over of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, best epitomized by the hurricane-out-of-smokestacks poster for Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, there may have been some truth in the hypothesis that global warming supercharged Katrina. But it was not rising sea temperatures so much as poor levee design and incompetent government response – all wrapped up in a tangle of racism and poverty – which took thousands of American lives.

And because the troubling possibility that if the most creative, sustainable way to mobilize the masses around the challenges of climate change is through freak weather phenomena, then climate activists are bound to get caught in a catch-22:  to create positive change, they will need to place their hope in tragedies. And not just any tragedy, but tragedies that are well-timed (for example, near the end of presidential elections characterized by climate silence) and well-placed (would we be having this conversation if the same storm struck China?).

“HURRICANE SANDY Taxi Terminal in Hoboken NJ” by Flickr user That Hartford Guy, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Some of you may know that recently I have been pondering the possibility of what it would like if the church were to save the planet from the worst of climate change. Let me outline my head-heart-hands argument that, for Christians (if not everybody), it should not take a frankenstorm to realize that something should be done about climate change.

Head:

Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have had a tenuous relationship with science in the midst of the last century’s so-called “culture wars.” But a number of scholars have seen a positive connection between the monotheistic, biblical world view (for example, that God has placed us within a rational, ordered cosmos governed by laws of cause and effect) and the historical rise of modern science.

As Christians, we know that there are simply some big questions about life and significance that science alone cannot answer. But we also know that there are questions which science does have the answer to – ranging from the low-budget high school science experiment to the highly ambitious attempts to model what climate change is and what it looks to be. And those ambitious models are remarkably consistent: even on days the weather is nice outside, our climate is under duress.

Some scientists find cures and are celebrated. Others point out urgent problems in society, but society in turn mocks them for their efforts, not unlike how the prophet Jeremiah was persecuted. Therefore, we can ask ourselves: upon hearing difficult news, would Jesus shoot the messengers?

Heart:

Christians are called to seek after the welfare of the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable. So when faith-based international relief organizations like World Vision and Bread for the World make major statements on how climate change is impacting the communities and nations they seek to do work in, Christians need to perk up and listen closely.

The worldwide poor are affected by climate change, not just when frankenstorms hit, but throughout the whole year. Climate change almost always hits the poor the hardest, because they lack the means to adapt to their changing environment (in fact, the super-rich have the obnoxious luxury of thinking how they can benefit from climate change).

Loving the poor through climate action is clearly abstract. We won’t directly see the smiles we might witness in a soup kitchen or through a mission trip. While there is something significant from these ministries of presence, ultimately loving the poor has never truly been about the “warm fuzzy feeling,” but rather part of the radical call of discipleship given to us by our Savior.

Hands: 

Everything I have said so far would be moot if it was not for the fact that Christians are not merely hearers, but doers. We see good work as the expression of our faith’s vitality.

It takes some care to see how a tough, 1st century text like the Sermon on the Mount translates into a call to action for the tough, 21st century reality of global warming. But at the end of Jesus’ speech comes the parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock – and, in our case, the message works both figuratively and literally.

Unlike his foolish downshore neighbor, who built a house upon sand, the wise man built a house that was able to withstand rains and floods and wind. This is what climate action looks like: instead of picking up pieces after the storm, taking the appropriate action now. Instead of serving quick profits, making the responsible sacrifices to ensure our planet’s sustainability not just for our generation but for our grandchildren’s generation.  The decisions that ensure our planet’s integrity, to the glory of the God of all creation.

None of the above will not be easy, but that is not a excuse.

“Aerial photos of New Jersey coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy” by Master Sgt. Mark Olsen, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I sincerely hope that Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, not just for the American people but also for our politicians and our news media and our risk-adverse investment bankers. But I also realize that to create a world more resilient to freak weather, it is going to take a well-rooted movement to counteract the slow, strong creep of climate change, a movement that exists regardless of how pleasant the weather is.

It is my belief that the church cannot afford to miss out on being a part of that movement, nor can the planet cannot afford the church to stand by idly.

Next Steps:

Right now, there is work to be done in Hurricane Sandy’s – and yesterday’s nor’easter‘s – aftermath. Covenant World Relief, an organization I did my college internship with, has set up a fund to help storm victims.

But after the band-aids have been applied, we will need to redirect our energies towards climate change. Continue reading “Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather”

Building a Movement Stronger than the Weather

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

I hardly pride myself on having good taste, but I am very fortunate to have friends who do or at least should. So when one of those friends, particularly my tall Dutch friend, recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, I felt like the responsible thing to do was read it. And I’m glad I did.

Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left 20 years of parish leadership for a life that is now split between farming and academia in Georgia, wrote this book as someone who had grasped “religion” but was now trying to understand “spirituality.” Could the presence of God be experienced outside church walls?

She cites the biblical story of Jacob’s dream in where he thought was the middle of nowhere, and what actually could have been just an ordinary dream without supernatural intervention led Jacob to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob proceeded to take the stone that he used as a pillow and planted it into the ground, poured oil on it, and called that middle-of-nowhere place “the house of God.”  Jacob’s “altar in the world”, significant for many reasons, becomes the foundation of Taylor’s book.

Although Brown talks about this-worldly spirituality using Christian language, it is completely accessible to non-Christians. Instead of taking the preacher’s role of how Scripture informs our worldview, Taylor uses the book of the world to uncover what can we all can know about experiencing the divine. This puts her book in the same genre as the Indian thinkers Buddha and Kabir, both of whom she cites at least once. This is why some of the spiritual practices she describes, like the labyrinth or prayer or the sabbath, will be familiar to Christians; while others, like “paying attention” or “carrying water” might catch us by surprise.

One of those chapters, “The Practice of Getting Lost” more than resonated with me. It was eerily like the short mediation I wrote in June on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost“, down to the tirade against GPSes we both made. Although Taylor is much more eloquent than myself, I took some surprising joy in knowing that somehow the 21st century has affected me and a Southern Episcopalian priest, now in her sixties, in much the same way. (Perhaps I’m not all that crazy, or at least I have a worthy companion in the crazy-den.)

That said, there were some things in the book that made me flinch. For example,

“I use paper, and I know it has to come from somewhere. I just hate thinking that a whole forest came down for one run of a mail-order catalog, especially since I saw so many copies of that catalog in the trash at the post office. From there, they will go to the landfill, where wastepaper is the number one problem. The sacrament of the catalog creates more than reverence in me; it creates painful awareness of my part in the felling of the forest. It weaves me into the web of cause and effect, reminding me of my place in the overall scheme of things.” -p.31-2

There actually is nothing wrong with this (well-worded) quote itself. The problem is that Taylor didn’t go where I expected. I found myself wondering: “Where is the call to action? Where is the prophetic fury against the powers that be, which are causing this literal mess?” Taylor was content to feel the “pain” of brokenness, and I could not help but wonder why this “pain” did not directly result in some sort of burning desire to change the world.

But now, after journeying through Taylor’s book, I realize I was trying to impose political fury on a list of personal practices. My own tendency towards problem-solving was getting in the way of problem-feeling. Similarly, whereas I wanted to know how to make the broken world beautiful, Taylor was teaching me how to pause to the beauty in the world, stubbornly shining through brokenness.

Granted, as far as books written from the Christian perspective go, this hardly gets to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is not romantic but radical. Living life well is quite different from losing one’s life.

But these aren’t contradictions. One example from Christian scripture: Song of Solomon, a book that is undeniably about proper orientation to a particular aspect of our physical existence, and Isaiah, a book undeniably about proper orientation to the divine and divine justice, sit right next to each other in the biblical canon. In that tradition, then, An Altar in the World can coexist with, say, the missional-minded The King Jesus Gospel of Scot McKnight, my former professor (who, it just so happens also wrote a book on living life well, One.Life.)

There was a moment, back during this late summer, when I was about half-way through Taylor’s book, and I had just spent the afternoon trying to figure out my working situation come autumn, on websites like craiglist and idealist and npo.net and indeed.com. And while I told myself I was being productive, I realized that all I was doing was browsing career porn, doing more fantasizing about vocation than actually applying to anything.

It was high-season for blueberries back in the Pacific Northwest, and we had a number of them ripe for the picking in the backyard. Frustrated from looking for a job in Chicago while in Portland, I went outside with a large bowl and just started adding berries to it. The sun was just beginning to set, creating the brilliant orange and purples of the summer sky. About twenty minutes later I had to go back inside for a second bowl.

There was something cathartic about picking berries, about grasping by the hand the potential productivity that lay in the immediate moment, in the immediate vicinity. There were no paychecks involved, but there were blueberries. It was neither perfect nor ideal – some berries were still a touch green while others were so ripe with juice they had exploded all over themselves – but it was real and fulfilling.

It was at this time that I began taking Taylor’s book seriously. Not just as a recommendation from a friend, or a somewhat sophisticated version of a self-help book, but exactly as what Taylor said she set out to explore.

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. – p.xvi-xcii

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”