Sun, 30 Jan 2005

Vinegar in the Honey

Yesterday Kim and I went to UCSB to see Sweet Honey in the Rock, "a Grammy Award-winning African American female a cappella ensemble with deep musical roots in the sacred music of the black church – spirituals, hymns, gospel – as well as jazz and blues." The mood was firmly early-90's African-American feminist. The group is amazingly accomplished musically, with a commanding presence on stage. They established an immediate repoire with the audience, teaching us an African round for everyone to sing at the outset, and keeping the show conversational throughout.

I found the conversation rather revealing, especially in the ways I was not welcomed to join it.

The political correctness of the whole event was of course impeccable. I came expecting that, and it didn't really bother me. (Nineties nostalgia and all.) The extent to which the Christian heritage of the black musical tradition had been submerged into an all-inclusive whole-earth spiritualism did surprise me a bit, and it disappointed me even more. But as an urban gospel music fan I think my expectations were probably unrealistic.

What really shocked me was something else.

Early in the set, Ysaye Maria Barnwell reminded everyone that a deep strength of the Civil Rights movement was its commitment to nonviolence and sang "Let us Rise in Love," a composition of hers written after September 11. This Christian pacifist agreed, and sang along.

Then came the next song, an encouragement of the political activism in which the group is truly rooted. Carol Maillard (I think) introduced it by praising the protesters who had courageously gathered "when the Republicans invaded New York," her home town. A touch of bitterness in her inflection; appreciative laughter from the audience.

So much for diversity, inclusiveness, and love!

Barnwell's line got me thinking of these words from Peter Gabriel:

There's safety in numbers
when you learn how to divide
How can we be in
if there is no outside
All shades of opinion
feed an open mind
But your values are twisted
let us help you unwind
You may look like we do
talk like we do
but you know how it is
You're not one of us.

Tired of conservative bloggers' harping about the insularity and the double standard on today's left? I am. But I'm a lot more tired of the insularity and the double standard. Love for Al Qaeda and a lockout for half of America – the ugly hypocrisy of her comment still stuns me. This woman, whose parents must have suffered under segregation, doesn't want busloads of her mayor's fellow Republicans at her town's lunch counters. And her "diverse" Santa Barbara audience, few of whom suffered under segregation, finally agrees with standing ovations.

This former Republican is now fighting the temptation to re-join the party as an act of solidarity.

"But look at how Republicans have treated her people!" True enough. And I want that to change much more than it already has. Is turning the GOP into "invaders" going to facilitate that change? Isn't it just for the satisfaction of bashing outsiders in a room safely full of insiders?

The last couple of numbers were freedom songs. I sang along, not feeling the triumphalist vibe emanating from the rest of the room, yet finding all the company I needed in the words themselves.

I sang along, not rooting for the bland "change" these progressives envisioned but awaiting the Christ-won freedom at the real heart of the black church tradition.

I sang along, thinking not so much of the expanded health care the group had advocated, but of the coming election in Iraq – a small sign of coming freedom that none of these daughters of the Jim Crow era had thought to mention. (Do these people know how pathetic this looks? Radical-chic nostalgia at $40 per ticket when halfway around the world millions of women and men are risking their lives to vote for the first time? Do you really think the moment would have been passed over in silence if it had happened under a Democratic administration? Even if you think the U.S. is an evil occupying force, wouldn't a successful election be a great step in getting out from under that occupation? In fact, wasn't that once a conviction of America's Civil Rights movement?)

I sang along, wondering how long it will be before our college campuses are intellectually loving, inclusive, diverse, serious, or even free.

I sang along, because I am as susceptible as everyone else to the sociological deafness that distorts and silences other people, and I need deliverance from that evil just as much as the ones who sing to me and hear only their own voices echoing back. I try to be more hospitable in class than they were in concert, but am I really so different? What do I say that I cannot hear, or choose not to reflect upon, or immediately forget?

I sang along, because despite the ambiguity of the group's theology I assume they are my sisters in Christ, and that means we belong together.

I sang along, because Jesus' most scathing words were not reserved for Romans but his cousins the Pharisees, and while he was more welcoming of them into his circles than this audience was of "red America," he was also more critical.

I sang along, thinking of some of the careless remarks I have heard in church over the years that left others feeling even more angry as I felt at that moment, and hoping for freedom there too.

I sang along, because my college's president recently reminded all of us in chapel that Jesus' Golden Rule is the sum of the law and the prophets. We disciples have a lot of work to do just to bring a single standard back to the way we treat each other, and the work can start as soon as someone notices the work order.

I sang along. But I won't be singing along next time, because I'm not interested in going again. There are better songs to sing, or at least better ways to sing these.

If the American Church, let alone America, is ever going to get past idolatry, condescension, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and red or blue political correctness, we will all need to change our tune. Anyone want to join me in singing that round?

15:03 (file under /topics/politics)

Thu, 27 Jan 2005

A Tribute to a Teacher Under Another Name

This post is a long overdue tribute to someone.

We learn any skill through mentors and examples. I have had so many fantastic teachers through the years that the verse "to whom much is given, much will be required" truly scares me. Just about every professor I had at Fuller and Duke showed me how to be an educator, especially when they weren't trying. The names would both bore you and come across as ingratiating name-dropping. Let it suffice to say that I would be embarrassed not to single out the ones who really poured their lives into my program, and equally embarrassed not to mention every one who played even a small part, because all were significant and transformative.

The same is true of my high school teachers. Before I was old enough to learn that there were alternatives, the faculty of Flintridge Preparatory School showed me what it is to live out of the love of both learning and learners. They became my default expectation for what counts as teaching, and I have never been content not to live up to the expectations they created in me.

(What about college? Did anyone inspire me at Stanford? Sadly, no. It is not that there were not great teachers there; for instance, Stuart Reges in computer science stands out as one of the best teachers I have ever had. I think I just wasn't in an inspirable frame of mind in college. My bad.)

Still, I want to single someone out as a formative influence on my life as a teacher – precisely because he would not think to put himself on the list if I did not name him.


From tenth to twelfth grade, I was on the Flintridge varsity water polo and swim teams. I was not varsity because I was a great athlete! I was varsity because we were such a small school that there was no junior varsity. I was (and remain) a mediocre athlete.

However, we were not a mediocre team. We excelled in our league because we had an excellent coach. Brian Murphy arrived between my ninth and tenth grades and transformed my school's water polo program. In weeks he turned us into league champions. An Olympic alternate in Munich, Murph taught us the Hungarian offense and the Russian counterattack, dazzled us with stories of European superstar polo players who could tread water with air between their legs, terrified us with drills in which we had to pass the ball until it was dry, and got us in the water with morning and afternoon workouts that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. We even practiced on Saturdays.

Murph was intense. He shouted constantly in practices. He was more demanding in the water than any teacher in the classroom. His discipline was rigorous, his authority absolute. During games, however, he was Zen-like. He deferred to the ref, even after bad calls. He raised his voice just once in three years of competition. He took the regular 15-2 victories as serenely as the jarring occasional close defeats. He counted on all the hours of preparation to see us through the minutes of trial.

I didn't like water polo or swimming season. I was not on the teams because I love these sports. I was on the team because my parents made me choose a sport every year of junior high and high school to make me more competitive as a college applicant. I never assimilated into athletic culture. I never wanted to go to practice. I never won a race. I never started a game.

However, I learned. I worked my ass off. (Hey, a sports story deserves a little sports jargon.) My body learned the skills and gained the conditioning I needed to pass for a player. I learned to get along with real athletes. I learned asceticism and endurance. I learned how a team works. I learned the tradition of water polo. During last summer's Olympics, there I was watching water polo on TV and teaching my children the plays.

And while I never wanted to do it, I was always quietly proud of myself. Moreover, as a senior, I received the "Most Improved Award." I still hadn't scored much that season, still hadn't started, still wasn't winning races. But I was becoming a water polo player. MIP is an odd award to win in your last year of school. But my father bursted with pride when I received it at the end-of-season banquet. Now that I am a father, I finally understand why. And I am discovering the source of the same energy he and my mom mustered to be up with me making breakfast and driving me to school to get me in the water by 6:00.

A banner in my school's gymnasium still chronicles our league championships: 1981, 1982, 1983. Murph owns those years.

His responsibility for those numbers on the banner is not why I am writing this post, though.


I was at my twentieth-year high school reunion last fall talking with Flintridge's new director of development when Murph came up. As I reminisced, it hit me that Murph taught me as much about teaching as any "teacher."

My classroom is a swimming pool where people are trained and transformed rather than merely informed. My expectations are sky-high. My A and B students are learning what it is to be stretched, and my C and D students are learning what it is to persevere. We're a team. Both the non-believers, Catholics, liberal Protestants, etc. who assume they won't "belong" and the conservative evangelicals who assume they have the inside track are learning the unfamiliar hospitality and friendship of the apostles' fellowship. The books and lectures aren't ends in themselves, but leverage for playing a game worthy of the name "Christian faith." People who think of a semester as a couple of tests and a thrown-together paper are struggling to get through the regular scrimmages of nine or more written assignments, a heavy reading load of sophisticated and challenging texts, and exams without a review sheet.

As a result they are learning that Christianity is more than just guilt and justification; it's also pain and sanctification. They are learning that it's okay to blow off steam with complaints, but not okay to corrupt the team with cynicism. They are learning that the ultimate criteria of faithfulness are not how skilled or talented or insightful a player is, but whether she cheats or plays by the rules, whether she gives up or keeps going even when she's discouraged.

And my students rise to the occasion. When I put them through more than I sometimes feel I have a right to, and much more than I ever tolerated as an undergraduate, they receive it with gratitude and grow it into character that brings tears to my eyes.

One semester a few years ago my students started calling me "Coach." That floored me. I consider it the ultimate compliment of my teaching career. It also gave me a new standard to strive for. "Doctor" respects my pedigree and "Professor" my professional position, and those are kind and appropriate gestures. But "Coach" signifies something greater – a relationship of even higher respect in our culture, a relationship that offers the passing along of the same vision that Brian Murphy gave me, against my will and despite my lack of talent, for which I am permanently grateful.

Thanks, Coach. I owe you in a big way.

09:48 (file under /topics/life)

Mon, 24 Jan 2005

Bye, Internet Explorer

Well, not quite; there are a few sites that don't yet work. But I switched to FireFox this week. So far, so good. I'm a happy camper.

The funny thing is that Kim and I own a little Microsoft stock. How many of a company's stockholders still root for open-source products that threaten their income? Take it away, Linux/OpenOffice/Mozilla....

10:52 (file under /topics/general)

Is Christianity a Cop-out?

This has to be the worst possible way to run a blog! One post in two months?

Yes, I'm well out of the habit. At the same time, I keep hearing from occasional readers that they appreciate this blog and my site in general, that it's needed, and that I should continue it. I appreciate those comments, and they are sure to keep me going, if pretty irregularly.

I have been directing my writing energy to a book on the Lord's Prayer and my reading energy to course texts. That doesn't leave much extra for a blog. Against all past precedence, I am actually making headway on the book even while the semester is in progress. That will almost certainly end once student papers start coming in, so I am trying desperately to finish a chapter while I still can.

Still, I received a provocative e-mail recently; when I responded to it, my answer was basically a theological FAQ. If you're interested on whether Christianity is a cop-out, here are my $.02. And if you are truly interested, then read the book to which I appeal at the end.

09:15 (file under /topics/general)
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