Fri, 11 Aug 2006

Lake Wobegon School District

As parents of elementary school-age children, we receive annual reports on their STAR ("Standardized Testing and Reporting") scores. One of today's reports came in the mail, and guess what I noticed?

The centerpiece of the report is a graph of my child's performance compared to the state standards. Take a look:

Pretty good! However, as I studied the numbers I noticed that they aren't even 20% intervals. Every range is different from every other.

So what? So look what happens when I go into Photoshop and produce a graph where the distances are actually consistent — the way you would expect them to be on a graph:

Not nearly so impressive, is it?

Look at what happened to the dotted line. The state target just got a lot lower: 350 on a scale from 150-600 is 44% of the way up to the top, not 60% as in the first graph. Welcome to California, where below grade level is above average.

And look at what happened to my high-performing child. Still good, but not nearly as solid as it had appeared. Suddenly I see a lot more room for improvement, both on our family's part and on the part of the school. And 'Advanced' doesn't look nearly as advanced as before.

What if I had a child right between the yellow and orange levels? The report would suggest that he or she needed to do a little extra work but that things weren't that bad. Below the state's goal for our schools, to be sure — but hey, that dotted line is above the half-way point, so maybe I just have an average student and the state is being a little too ambitious. Is that how it would look if the score were only one-third of the way up the page?

This graph is by far the most prominent information on the whole page. The other side has monochrome fine print and compressed percentile statistics on components of the test, and those aren't distorted. But the image of a high-performing student and an ambitious school system is already burned into my imagination. How would I be reading them differently if I saw this first page instead?

Now the graph doesn't have to be linear to be truthful. It could use a bell curve, since the test results probably fall along one. It could use true quintiles or uneven ranges as in my Photoshopped version. But the graph isn't any of these. The total range for California STAR tests is 600-150, or 450 points. A quintile should have a range of 90 points. But the bottom (red) 'quintile' has a range of 119, or 26%. The next (orange) has a range of 31 (6%) on the left and 55 (12%) on the right. The 'middle' (yellow) has a range of 50 (11%). The penultimate (light green), corresponding to grade-level performance, has a range of 43 (9%) on the left and 51 (11%) on the right. The top (dark green), corresponding to above-grade-level performance, has by far the largest range: 208 (46%) on the left and 200 (44%) on the right.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the numbers, but of course there is. The chart is laid out to make the state, my school, my child, and my child's teachers all look better than they are.

Here is a larger roll-over image to help you compare the two directly.

I am a teacher too. In my circles we call this "misrepresenting the data," otherwise known as cheating.

Perhaps the ranges really need to be different. Then don't graph them! Or don't use a smooth gray bar from the bottom to where my child's scores are. Or ask the statistians that designed the testing scheme in the first place. Surely they can figure something out. But whatever you do, tell me the truth about my own child, not just in the fine print but in the headline.

My advice to California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell: Next year, find someone who passed elementary school pre-algebra to do your advertising for you.

Update: I sent a link to EduWonk, who kindly responded by directing me to this article on how scores are set on these tests. I did further digging to discover that the numbers on California STAR reports are scaled but not normed, so they need not produce a normal distribution. Everything I have read indicates that those five areas are not quintiles. Graphing them as such is misleading.

21:47 (file under /topics/life)

Thu, 10 Aug 2006

Snap Out of It!

Hearty, sincere thanks to whichever intelligence and law enforcement people saved the lives of hundreds (thousands?) of air travelers by busting the latest Islamist plot today.

Thanks also to the Anchoress for talking more sensibly than many whose sites I've visited since the story broke:

How about for the day, and for the immediate days before us, some of us drop the agendas, drop the cynicism, drop the paranoid theories, drop the conspiracy theories, drop the profound generalizations, drop the hate and drop the idea that what we are dealing with is easy, simple or uncomplicated, or that its solution may be found in the promotion or demotion of a man in Washington or a man in Britain (If only they would listen to you!)

And how about we Christians stay focused on the shepherd who is the solution we have to offer the world? Remember him?

17:21 (file under /topics/wot)

Mon, 07 Aug 2006

Fall 2006 Syllabi

A few eager-beaver students are asking about next semester's syllabi. I am sure it is because they love learning and not just that they want to pick up deals on At any rate, I have finalized my textbook choices for next semester's classes. There are more than ever! Woo-hoo!

Here are my booklists for Christian Doctrine and Doctrine of Reconciliation. I encourage parents and others who want to purchase copies so you can read along. Doctrine students: Note that there is an in-course honors track for those of you who are eligible. It has some of the same readings and some different ones. A new aspect to the course will be one text that you will choose from a list to read with other students.

Alas, if you want to read ahead you will have to wait until I post the reading schedules. Those will be 'under construction' until nearly the beginning of the semester.

22:30 (file under /topics/westmont/classes)

Thu, 27 Jul 2006

The Middle East

I post once a year whether I need to or not!

Anyway, I preached this sermon on the Middle East Sunday at Montecito Covenant Church. (Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.) It's called Sheep with a Shepherd.

Coming soon: My presentation at the Institute for Ecumenical Research's fortieth annual ecumenical institute, which took up the topic of the implications of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity on ecumenism.

12:02 (file under /topics/preaching)

Sat, 05 Nov 2005

"God Is Not a Christian"

Tonight some of us from Westmont heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at the Arlington Theater in town. The evening was deeply inspiring, and deeply discouraging.

Tutu has a delightful personality, and this visit to Santa Barbara to thank the activists who helped free South Africa from Apartheid and to commend forgiveness could not have found a more sympathetic crowd. I came with memories of Apartheid, campus divestment movements, and later the dismantling of the regime and the new government's amazing Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and with a lot of Westmont students who were born in the mid-1980's and for whom it was all ancient history, if they knew of it at all.

Tutu's account of the Xhasa proverb of ubuntu, that "a person is a person through persons," will from now on enter into my lectures on the personhood of both humans and the Triune God. His conviction that God never gives up on anyone was filled out with Bible stories told in the riveting, joyful tone of someone who believes them to the core of his being. These were wonderful, blessed moments spent in the presence of one of the world's great human beings.

Yet in the end, the evening broke my heart.

Sure, there was the politically corrected and historically sanitized alternative reality that I have come to expect at such events and yet still flinch at every time I have to endure it. I understand the sense of betrayal Tutu must feel for the Reagan Administration for resisting sanctions against the Apartheid regime, and don't begrudge him his narrative of that era. Yet in moments of remembrance like tonight's, I wish the violence of the African National Congress would not be quietly passed over and Nelson Mandela held up as a father of non-violence. Mandela is a great man, and his greatness in the face of the sheer evil of Apartheid can survive honest recollection rather than selective memory. It would also be nice for people to remember that South Africa became a potential pawn in the Cold War, with the ANC receiving Soviet and East German support. When a man of Tutu's stature tells us that the truth has to be told in order to make room for forgiveness and reconciliation, I agree – and I have to wonder why he doesn't go on to tell the whole truth. We who had to take sides during his country's conflict need reconciliation, too. Tonight he did not offer us the conditions for it.

More urgent is the national reconciliation that needs to happen over the war in Iraq. Yet here too Tutu's memory was selective, and the truth was left only partially and conveniently told. He condemned the war according to "just war" theory because it was not conducted by the legitimate authority of the UN Security Council. Yet Augustine's doctrine holds states rather than superstates to be legitimate political authorities; Congress' authorization for war was no less legitimate than the UN's would have been. Furthermore, the UN Security Council split because of political and economic opportunism that turned out to be partially underwritten by states doing business with Saddam and on the take with money from the UN's own oil-for-food program. How does that make the UN more legitimate than the US in answering Saddam's repeated violations of his own 1991 ceasefire agreement? Tutu also appealed to the anti-war rallies at the war's outset as hope for nonviolence and signs that nonviolent means had not been exhausted, failing of course to mention that they were organized not by activists for nonviolence but by the Leninist-Stalinists of International ANSWER and that Saddam's intention was not to back down but to outlive the UN sanctions, rebuild his military, and fight another day. The Bush Administration has certainly needed to tell a lot more of the truth behind the goals of this war, and it still does. But so do the war's opponents. Instead, they have rewritten the past and sent inconvenient details down the memory hole. Without the truth, where will the forgiveness and the reconciliation come from? And why does this world leader, who has such a profound grasp of the dynamics of forgiveness, withhold such truthfulness from friendly audiences who might receive it as constructive criticism rather than the attacks of its opponents? If Desmond Tutu won't break those silences and dismantle those self-justifications, will anyone?

It leaves me tempted to hopelessness.

I try so hard in my classes and in my writing to be fair! Though I am tempermentally and philosophically conservative, I assign texts from Christians on the left and commend them in front of my students. Whenever I pick on the left, I pick on the right accordingly. I teach and especially preach self-critically, because I and the various groups to which I belong – Americans, evangelicals, conservatives, white Europeans, males, the highly educated, the well-off, and on and on – all richly deserve the self-criticism. To be sure, I fail. My blind spots and self-deceptions are always working their black magic on me. But in event after event I look for similar fairness from the left, especially the Christian left. I look for the same self-criticism. And event after event lets me down.

The people who left the theater happy tonight live in a world where Republicans are always dependably wrong and progressives are always dependably right, where God (or Whoever) somehow converts good intentions into good results, and where all that matters are abstractions like Goodness whose definitions belong to them. It must be a comfortable world (except when reality intrudes).

I am almost resigned to a career in which I will watch helplessly while my students receive the same smug indoctrination that I received myself in college and have never been able entirely to escape since, and where many of them will be so trusting and already so influenced by that chorus that they will fall for it. Meanwhile those of us who try to be fair will cancel ourselves out with all of our qualifications and complexities, and for good measure our efforts will earn us only the honor of being lumped in with other people's oppositions.

Yes, I know the right and every other social group has false prophets who lie with the same self-serving stories and half-truths. Well, are they as ubiquitous? Are they as effective? Do they hold the same moral high ground? Maybe in some circles, but not in mine.

I. Am. So. Tired. Of. It.

I may be profoundly discouraged right now, but I haven't surrendered. I won't enter some other world that comforts me in the same way. And I don't believe that evil from the right will balance evil from the left and somehow yield a truthful synthesis. And I haven't lost all hope. Reconciliation demands truth. I'll keep aspiring to fairness and praying for correction when I fail, even when it comes painfully. But every new disappointment is more fatiguing than the last, especially when it comes from people I respect.

Yet as much as all this hurt, it is not what broke my heart.

What broke my heart came at the conclusion of the evening, when Tutu took questions from the audience. One asked, "What can other religions teach Christians? What can Christians teach other religions?"

To the first part, Tutu responded with a stock answer – and to thunderous applause – "They can teach Christians that God is not a Christian."

Christians get angry when he says that, he then said; but who can look at the Dalai Lama and say his prayer and his holiness is something God will reject?

Now Tutu is right that the godliness and holiness of people like the Dalai Lama is real godliness and holiness. Christians need not belittle it. Tutu is also right that God's reception of these people into his kingdom is his prerogative. That future is not ours to deny just because these people do not call upon Jesus as Lord. Nor are we to force the label of "Christians" upon people like these if they do not embrace the label themselves. Jesus is not a coercive Lord.

Tutu is dead right that God does not belong to us who are called "Christians." But let's accept, for the sake of argument, a standard definition of a Christian as a follower of Jesus as Christ (meaning Messiah: "the Anointed One"). Is the God who is the Father of the Son, who loves and anoints him with his Spirit and exalts him with all things, not the Son's best follower? Is the Spirit who conceives him, who leads him along the Father's mission and indwells his body, calling upon him to Come and confessing him as Lord, not the Son's best follower? When it takes the Spirit to provoke our own confessions, how can we arrogate the title "Christian" to ourselves as a possession, as something our own? The term "Christian" was coined only in Antioch after Jesus ascended; but it belongs to God in the story of Jesus Christ, not to us. Tutu made the word our possession. But we take it on only with fear and trembling, knowing that the Messiah judges whether or not we know him and serve him and prove faithful to his office.

Tutu turned two different things into a false dichotomy: he left us with the choice of either making God the possession of Christians or acknowledging that good people are truly good. The Archbishop Emeritus left us with that agonizing choice because he chose not to tell us the story of Jesus Christ, a story that points somewhere else than those two horrible options. In fact, by winsomely forcing them on us he told us a different story, the story of pluralism, in which God floats free from his own beloved Church.

He gut-punched every Christian in that room with that throwaway line, and left a lot of us walking out at the end in stunned, devastated silence.

Even worse, Tutu did not answer the second part of the question, about what Christians might teach others. He went on to the next – to more applause from the delighted audience, and more devastation in me.

Why? Because we do have something to teach the world's other communities of conviction.

We Christians don't need to teach them our culture, our history, our apologies, or even our religion. We bear only one thing. It is not something we created or own. We are merely entrusted with it for a time and held accountable for its fruitfulness when that time is over.

That thing is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is his story and his name above all names that we offer the world with joy and expectation. It is through him that South Africa's and America's and the world's forgiveness and reconciliation come.

Thanks be to God for Desmond Tutu and the mighty works done through him in South Africa. My life will never remotely compare to his. But if he thinks the godliness of a Dalai Lama or a Desmond Tutu or (God forbid) a Telford Work will justify any of us, if he thinks the prayers or spirituality or deep thoughts of even the holiest of us will be acceptable to God on their own, if he thinks that Jesus' good news doesn't need to be taught because all these other good things are already all around us – then the Archbishop Emeritus is teaching another gospel. He is a prophet of justification by works. He has forgotten the one thing that matters most. Moreover, this man entrusted with the highest teaching office in his Church has invited us to do the same.

I decline that invitation.

I refuse to forget. I refuse to go home and sleep peacefully after even as godly a man as Desmond Tutu takes such a generous question and, when asked what might be worth teaching, shrinks back from naming the name of Jesus. I refuse to be complicit in the massive apostasy underway in this culture and even in our churches that would put any other story – or no story at all! – before our Lord's good news.

Jesus gets the glory. Jesus, not "Transcendence," is the name above every name. Someday every tongue will confess, "Jesus, Christ, Lord" to the Father's glory. South Africa's freedom from its demonic past is a sign of that Father's kingdom. It accrues to his glory. Desmond Tutu's vision has been a big part of that. But Christians don't own our name, our glories, or even our sins. The Dalai Lama doesn't own his spirituality or prayers. Progressives and conservatives don't own their Goodness. I don't even own this lousy blog. And none of us owns our futures. Jesus' blood got him the deed to them all.

If you learn anything from us "Christians," whether we are godly, enthralling Nobel Peace Prize laureates or intolerant, weak, arrogant, hypocritical bloggers, for God's sake learn that.

03:01 (file under /topics/preaching)

Mon, 17 Oct 2005

The Lord's Prayer in its Eschatological Setting

Tonight I was honored to deliver the fall 2005 Paul C. Wilt Phi Kappa Phi lecture, compressing several chapters of material from my work on the Lord's Prayer. Here is the Adobe Acrobat version of the lecture. I am sorry that I don't have copies of the wonderful comments of my two respondents, Carter Crockett from our economics and business department and Jeff Schloss of our biology department. Nor is there a transcript of the lovely discussion that followed. All I will say about them is that I have plenty of good things to think about, and that they are just the kind of thing that can happen at a Christian liberal arts college. Thanks to everyone for coming.

21:45 (file under /topics/preaching)

Tue, 11 Oct 2005

Only Mostly Dead

The last post was in February! Is this blog dead?

Well, it just so happens that this blog is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.

Nevertheless, it is only slightly alive, and it will stay that way at least until the end of the semester. I have more responsibilities at home, more students than ever, more committee assignments, and several urgent projects. But I do appreciate the encouragement that I get from readers not to stop, and I am taking that encouragement seriously.

Not blogging for eight months is an interesting experience, though. First the pressure of not publishing dissipates. Then the guilt of not publishing gradually disappears. Finally the joy of learning without the obligation to report on it re-emerges. Of course I miss blogging too. But when I return I will also miss not blogging.

While the blog is mostly dead, keep watching this space for links to those projects when they come on-line. Here are links to a few recent additions to

"You Can Say That Again" is a sermon on joy I delivered in August.

And "The Soulless World of Tom Wolfe" is an article in the current issue of The New Pantagruel.

Most of all, you should read the tremendous textbooks I have chosen for my class on the Life and Literature of the New Testament. They'll keep you busy! Each is worth a review in this space. Maybe next semester....

As I said, there is more in the pipeline, so don't give up quite yet.

Back to work now!

12:07 (file under /topics/preaching)

Fri, 18 Feb 2005

Three Offerings for Your Reading and Scanning Pleasure

I've been busy lately, enjoying the hospitality of a few different audiences.

A week ago I preached this (slightly long) sermon to a delightful group of scholarship candidates and their parents here at Westmont. It's called "Every Place on which You Set Foot Shall Be Yours."

Wednesday I was at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church here in town, teaching on Jesus as the Omega and the Alpha (sic). Great discussion! Great questions!

Now tonight, at UCSB, it will be a talk on the wholeness (or lack thereof) of Christian life on college campuses.

Hope you all have been busy too, and having as much fun as I have.

This weekend the tables will be turned, and I will be the audience for a big stack of students' papers. Shabbat shalom.

15:46 (file under /topics/preaching)

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)

Mon, 20 Dec 2004


Just turned in my grades for the semester at Westmont – three hours before the deadline. A new record!

If time permits in the next few days, I'll end the year with reading recommendations from some of the terrific texts we read this semester in my classes.

If I don't manage even that, then everyone have a Happy Holiday Merry Christmas. And students, watch this space for news that next semester's syllabi have been posted.

13:18 (file under /topics/general)

Fri, 05 Nov 2004


Since switching from Blogger to Blosxom, I have offered Clutter in an RSS feed. I didn't bother to link to it, though. Now that I have found out some readers are using it (a good idea, since I post so rarely), I am including a link on the right, as well as here.

No campaign reaction? Nah. Maybe some comments on the coverage someday. For now, just a word of heartfelt thanks to those of you who conveyed some extraordinarily kind messages to me over the past week – from the political left, center, and right. I have seen very little like your words out on the Internet. You folks are the salt of the earth.

Shabbat shalom.

16:56 (file under /topics/general)

Mon, 01 Nov 2004

Game Almost Over

I went to the pet store for hamster supplies a few days ago. After the checkout person thanked me for coming, I replied, "You're welcome. And whomever you vote for, or don't vote for...."

She froze, tensed up, and waited for me to finish the precarious sentence I had started.

"... have a good evening." She looked at me with incredulous relief, as if I had said something in another language.

I had, in a way. After all, no one is voting for King of Kings tomorrow! Infinity more years!

Remember: we can afford to be as generous to everyone, from loved ones to neighbors to strangers to enemies, as God has been to us.

Still, it will be nice when this contest is over. In the middle of the playoffs it always seems as if the future of the world depends on my team winning the series, the game, the play. Afterwards, the groupthink fades, perspective returns, and life goes on.

Many of your loved ones, neighbors, strangers, and enemies need that generosity now. Don't wait until the election is over; don't wait until normal perspective is already returning; offer yours right away.

Then, since the game isn't quite over yet, here is my favorite Bush endorsement, and here is my favorite Kerry endorsement. (Both come via Instapundit, though I read both blogs regularly anyway. Unlike big media, who lost this campaign for both my interest and my loyalty.)

Life goes on, not just after the election but already. Whoever you are, may the risen Son's peace be with you today, tomorrow, and forever.

19:25 (file under /topics/politics)

Wed, 27 Oct 2004

Don't Vote?

Somebody still reads this blog! A message arrived from my non-voting colleague, Jonathan Wilson of Acadia Divinity College: "Don't vote! ... Not because the parties are compromised but because the system is. Big money, entrenched, self-interested power decides whom the people get to vote for."

Jonathan isn't objecting to voting in any modern nation-state; he tells me he will vote in Canada if and when he is qualified. (The country that produced its current Liberal Party is better? Hmmm.)

As usual, Jonathan and I agree even as we disagree; the theological assumptions we share inform the political assumptions we don't, to produce interesting results and fruitful discussions. (So you will never find the two of us facing each other on "Hardball.")

Political theorists have shown that no voting system can be truly neutral. The peculiar dynamics of America's federalism, its first-past-the-post (winner take all, rather than proportional representation) system, and its constitutional balance of powers produce peculiar results. Incidentally, I prefer this system over Canada's Westminster model. A different system would produce a different variety of favoritism. Perhaps it would be a better one; perhaps not. As a conservative I approach reform with a built-in skepticism: how would the players of the old system rig the new system to favor them? What unintended consequences would accompany, distort, or reverse the intended ones? The McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" whose effects are being felt in this year's 527s is a good example of why I would rather not tamper with what has produced workable results in the United States for two hundred years.

It's true that "big money, entrenched, self-interested power" has a disproportionate say in selecting candidates. Yet the Democratic Party's incoherence and the Republican Party's weakness did too. I don't go for the "tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum" marxist account of American politics where the stakes in one party or the other winning are inconsequential because the same powers survive every change of administrations. Trial lawyers, teachers' unions, big labor, African-America, and the extremely rich want Kerry to win because the stakes are high for them. Likewise for Bush's supporters among Chambers of Commerce, the moderately well off, the less populous Rocky Mountain states, the Christian right, the military, and so on. We face two uninspiring candidates who are struggling for 51% not because they are so similar that they are indistinguishable, but because they have had to work so hard to create a winnable coalition that they have exposed the fractures in their own diverse bases. In European politics, coalition-building follows voting; in American politics, it's more the other way around. At one level I am voting for Bush because, while I find the Republican coalition incoherent and mildly offputting, I find the Democratic coalition fundamentally self-contradictory and extremely offputting.

Yet at a deeper level (and loyal readers of this blog can look back to my posts last summer for evidence of my convictions), I am voting against the candidate of big journalism. I refuse to reward the disgusting behavior of our country's (really our world's) journalists. The traditions of honest journalism are a huge countervailing force to the big money and entrenched, self-interested power behind the American political process. This year more than ever, it seems, they have decided to hold their tongues and mete out misleading "coverage" until their man gets elected.

If they had the courage to use it, journalists would have the prophetic power that puts truth-tellers "over nations and kingdoms" (Jeremiah 1:10). Instead, they have settled for false prophesying: "'every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace'" (Jeremiah 6:13-14). The past few months have seen the spirit of false prophecy spread and flourish even after unprecedented misbehavior (The New York Times, CBS News) and criticism. "Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush" (6:15a). Today's journalists don't know how to blush, do they?

As powers and principalities struggle for dominance through both parties, and as (mainly) Democrats resort to disenfranchisement-by-lawsuit and outright voter fraud to prevail in this election even at the price of the good faith of the world's oldest democracy, I still view journalists' false prophesying as the greatest compromise of the formal and informal system by which America is governed. My vote against Kerry is an admittedly imperfect sign that "'therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,' says YHWH" (6:15b).

That day may not come in 2004, but it will come. This disillusioned former journalist is looking forward to it, and rejoicing already.

09:40 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 25 Oct 2004

My Mind Is Made Up

I finally made up my mind about what to do politically this year.

First, I registered nonpartisan ("decline to state").

Coming from a Republican family, I feel a twinge of familial guilt when I think about this. This does not trouble me; moving away from one's family traditions should produce anxiety and even guilt, if the family is a good one – and mine definitely is. But ever since I read in college of a Jesus who calls his followers to leave everything and follow him, I have become accustomed at least to the idea of feeling that loss. The gain is better – a hundredfold better – but that doesn't mean the loss isn't real. I remain proud of my family's politics – and I even still think my "Now More Than Ever" button from 1972 is cool, especially in the effect it has on people without a sense of irony (e.g., many liberals and, alas, a few conservatives too).

Why nonpartisan? I have several reasons:

A. I am increasingly convinced that the logic of political parties is a bad idea for Christians. I am still comfortable with Christians voting – that is, with our being free to respond when the country consults our judgment about what courses to follow. I have at least one colleague who refuses to vote on the ground that they would be complicit in the acts of a compromised power, but I tend to see voting in terms of Joseph serving under Pharaoh or Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar. We are gifted with the Spirit of truth-telling, and voting is a limited but effective way of it. However, a political party is something else: a coalition of people whose group identity becomes too determinative and too centered on power for its own good. The sociological dynamics of "Republicans," "Democrats," "Libertarians," "Greens," etc. are not healthy. And that is to say that they are sinful. The corrupting influence they have on those who are attracted to them is something I want to discourage.

If it is not obvious to you that patriotism and partisanship are both out of hand among this country's Christians ...

... perhaps it is now.

I will be happy to vote in open primaries, if California gets them this November, but not closed ones.

B. I don't think America's two significant parties are serving it or the world well right now, and refusing to join them is a way of saying so. As a shopper, I believe it is fine to leave a store, even a restaurant, without purchasing anything. It sends just as real a signal to the marketplace as buying or selling. In 2002 crowds of people who rarely go to movies went to see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on the word-of-mouth advice of friends, showing that a huge market was going underserved by the usual Hollywood garbage. This seems a good time to tell our political parties that we don't like what we see. Last October California recalled Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger in a convulsion from the "none of the above" vote finally being offered something it wanted. The California legislature has begun to realize it cannot ignore that signal and survive.

While I have until now identified with Republicans, I am not happy about their spending habits in Congress, their demagoguery with the FMA, their aloofness and refusal to talk straight to the American people, or their readiness to embrace statist means to promote their constituents' economic and social interests. Yes, I know: they want to rule, and doing these things helps them do it. It also makes them less appropriate rulers. I understand the strategy; I just don't believe Christians should identify themselves with these kinds of compromises.

I am even less happy with Democrats, whose teachers' unions are destroying schools for my children and especially other people's children, whose paradigm of racial reconciliation is a counterproductive relic of the sixties, whose systematic incoherence over the War on Terror is downright dangerous, and whose spokespeople's elitism, arrogance, and judgmentalism I am simply unable to stomach.

Even if I thought parties were okay for Christians to join, I wouldn't want to send a supportive signal to either of these two. I am thrifty when I shop, and I'm going to be thrifty when I vote. If they want my vote, they can come and get it. Mine won't come cheap.

What about single issues many Christians regard as having overriding importance – for instance, abortion? My feeling is that vices like abortion and substance abuse will decline in America not when they are made illegal, but when they are made unacceptable. Despite the rhetoric from both sides, I sense that Republicans are closer than Democrats to resonating with that vision. Nevertheless, patient, loving, noncoercive Christian witness to the way of Jesus Christ is the only real resource for truly making that happen. Success does require group dynamics and distinctive politics. They worked in ancient Rome and they can work again here. But the appropriate 'party' in which they will work is not the state or its political institutions, but the Church that lives them out regardless of their popularity.

C. Evangelicals' growing identification with the Republican Party and desertion of the Democratic Party may be understandable, but it is perilous. I quote from one of my courses' textbooks, Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), page 138:

Adrian Hastings in his history of English Christianity in the present [twentieth] century has reminded us that for the first two decades of this period the Christianity of the English Free Churches was interpreted as almost necessarily involving support for the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party destroyed itself, the Free Churches suffered a blow, a loss of identity, from which they have hardly begun to recover (A History of English Christianity: 1920-1985, 1986). It does not require much knowledge of history to recognize that, with all its grievous sins of compromise, cowardice, and apostasy, the Church outlasts all these movements in which so much passionate faith has been invested. In their time each of these movements seems to provide a sense of direction, a credible goal for the human project. The slogans of these movements become sacred words which glow with ultimate authority. But they do not endure. None of them in fact embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which – remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy – form the inner core of the Church's being.

Liberal Protestant churches are not surviving the collapse of the liberal consensus of the mid-twentieth century. Even if the Republican Party is becoming a majority party (I think it probably is), it is not going to last. Do we want evangelical Christianity to go down with it?

So much for party affiliation. What about the current election?

In California's wacky state politics there are lots of propositions to say 'no' to and a few to say 'yes' to. But those matters are for another post, which I will certainly not get around to writing.

Nothing in the past months, or years, has changed my mind about the presidential election. Just about every issue I have with the Democratic Party played a part in its choice of John Kerry for president. It is trying to rule by being centrist and leftist at the same time, a prescription for disaster. Its economics look backward to stasism rather than forward to the dynamism which, whether we like it or not, will be characterizing the world economy for the foreseeable future. Kerry's vision of diplomatic and military leadership, if he even has one, reflects the thinking of his party's defeatist wing, which in the present context probably portends setbacks in Iraq, U.S. retreats, emboldened Islamists, an even less just Islamic world, and more terrorism worldwide. His campaign's cynical and transparently incompetent use of military imagery grates even on me, a pacifist and lifelong civilian! The Democrats still can't stop thinking of Europe more as America's future than as a dead end America turned decisively away from in 1980. While less opportunistic than Republican economic policies, their own policies tend to suffer from unintended consequences that hurt the poor, greedy constituencies that tax and regulate themselves into comfort, and dreams detached from reality.

This country's left has always had a "healthy" self-image as the hope of the world. Since the late 1960s it has also had a deeply unserious side. I tired of both these character traits even before I was out of college, and since then my tolerance for them has risen little. The left could do America a lot of good, but first it needs strong dose of humility and reality. Its thought police need to rise to the robust practical and intellectual challenges they have been ignoring for decades. Its hegemons need a generation of youngsters to reject its axioms. Its statists need to discover that compassion does not rely on coercion. Its perennial critics of the west need to discover the good in their enemies and acknowledge the evil in their friends. Its intellectuals need to learn that they aren't right just because no one they know disagrees with them. Its advocates need to stop resorting to caricature, vilification, intimidation, censorship, fraud, and the presumption of moral superiority. (This seems to be a larger problem on the left right now than on the right.) Finally, the left's many good, thoughtful, and faithful people need to take it back from the people who have ruined it.

Electing Kerry president will not deliver that medicine. It will only advance the disease. The Democratic Party had its Tony Blair moment after the 1994 congressional elections when Bill Clinton shifted it to the center and created the most successful Democratic era in presidential politics since the 1960s. When Al Gore campaigned from the populist (and arrogant) left, he betrayed that legacy, squandered the Democrats' best position in decades, divided the party, and lost the election all at the same time. America needed a vital but responsible opposition party after September 11. Instead, it was stuck with Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Michael Moore – and now John Kerry.

Kerry is no Tony Blair. He is not the man to lead a recovery in the Democratic Party. Under him and without George W. Bush on whom to fixate, Democrats' papered-over fissures would only worsen. Kerry's administration would be structurally unable to satisfy its constituents and America would be caught in-between for four pretty important years. The unserious left would interpret its win over George W. Bush as a vindication of both its goals and its Machiavellian methods, with probably disastrous results. Democrats need more time in the political wilderness to sort out their identity and vision for the country. Maybe this will take four more years, perhaps eight. It will take at least two years just to become worthy as an opposition party. It will also take someone else than John Kerry to lead it into that better place.

I haven't said much positive about George W. Bush, have I? No, I haven't. W is a better president than I could ever be, especially in these very challenging times, and despite his weaknesses he is still not as mediocre as Kerry. But he has been "just OK" as a president, which is to say he has been a disappointment. I have already lodged some complaints about this administration and the party that created it, and my liberal colleagues here at Westmont have lodged further substantial complaints about Bush, his administration, his policies, the way he has been waging this war, and the Republican Party he is creating. As long as those criticisms are responsible, fair, and free from the hyperbole and paranoia that now characterize a lot of language from the left, I grant the force of many of those criticisms. I don't blame people for wanting a president besides George W. Bush.

But I will vote for W – more than anything as a vote against John Kerry. Kerry is a complete zero. If Republicans are implicated in Bush's mediocrity, then the party that nominated Kerry is implicated in his nothingness. Not only have the Democrats not sold me, they have pushed me farther away than ever.

As you (the Americans among you, anyway) make up your own minds this week, may God bless you.

10:12 (file under /topics/politics)

Fri, 15 Oct 2004

Pop Goes the Bubble

The current issue of Westmont magazine features an article of mine called "Pop Goes the Bubble: Adventures in Christian Culture Crossing." Part of it explores lessons I have learned blogging and websurfing in the last several years. Here is an excerpt:

We evangelical Christians are not the only ones who stay within our comfort zones. Everybody bubbles: social classes, genders, ideologies, tribes, tongues, and nations; journalists, experts, professors, and professions; churches, webloggers, and even San Francisco’s subcultures. Humanity is not so much a global village, one big family, or a sea as a lather – a thick layer of bubbles jostling, colliding, seeing others only through the distorting curvature of their own dividing walls, interacting with strangers only at their common surfaces, and generally minding their own business.
All of these children of the Father belong to the Son (John 17:10). So the good news of his Kingdom has to be bubble-crossing and bubble-bursting. Following the Son demands that we take on the discomforts of his apostleship, whether that means reading unfamiliar sources and taking them seriously, going on missions and cross-cultural off-campus programs with eyes and ears as open as our mouths, living with roommates we didn’t choose, or just crossing the road to help strangers.

Shabbat shalom!

17:37 (file under /topics/publishing)

Thu, 30 Sep 2004

College, Seminary, Church

While some people are watching the presidential debate, and while the rest of my family is at back-to-school night, I will be starting a course with Fuller Theological Seminary's Santa Barbara extension on patristic theology.

I have also begun teaching a series on the pastoral letters (1/2 Timothy and Titus) at my local church for the college group. This Sunday we cover the dreaded 1 Timothy 2.

The combination of teaching commitments represents something of a realization of a dream: to train pastors, raise students, and teach a church. Theology belongs in every one of these places (and more). In fact, theology that excludes any one of them is in danger of distorting itself into something less than it should be. A theological career that includes all of them is healthily balanced. On top of my typical teaching load, these other courses make for an awfully busy but uniquely rewarding fall semester.

09:17 (file under /topics/general)

Sun, 26 Sep 2004

Westmont Homecoming

Ever wondered why tiny little 2 John is in the Bible? I think I have a better answer since preaching at this worship service for Westmont's Homecoming.

It's called Less Is More: The Joy of Preaching about Almost Nothing.

19:57 (file under /topics/preaching)
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