Weekend Reading, 3.15.2015

This is a new feature here at the blog: Weekend reading links. Take some time to check these out:


“There is Only One Direction” is an essay by writer Samantha Hunt. It may be the best thing I've read all week. At first, you’ll think it’s about being an adult fan of One Direction, until Hunt begins tying together fandom, parenting, and death. There’s even a guest appearance by Patti Smith. 

Here’s a preview: 

“The day they remove my right ovary, Zayn fails to show up at the world premiere of the new 1D record. It seems right in terms of my reproductive health. The boys make excuses, say it’s a stomach bug. I know it isn’t a stomach bug, but I make excuses also because I want to live.”

B.B. King’s Best Songs: A Playlist

In honor of B.B. King, who passed away this week, Ted Gioia has compiled an 8-song playlist to introduce you to his music. Spanning various phases in King’s career, it shows off the blues man’s signature touch, tone, and presence. 

If I personally had to recommend one King record, though, it would be “Blues is King”, the record he recorded in 1966. He had good reason to have the blues that year: His wife filed for divorce, his bus was stolen, and the IRS slammed him with a hefty bill for back taxes. 

For more on King, this site has a wealth of biographical information, concert videos, and interviews. 

“Color-Blind Policy, Color-Conscious Morality.”

Ta Nehisi Coates has a provocative piece at The Atlantic called, “Color-Blind Policy, Color-Conscious Morality.” It’s a critique of the progressive approach to issues in the African-American community which, as Coates describes it, is quick to critique moral failure within the community but slow to talk about the racist policies and history that have eroded that community’s foundations. Instead, policy focuses more broadly on class: 

“…[Y]ou will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.

“This affliction is not solely Obama’s. Consider that in a conversation about poverty, featuring America’s first black president, one of its most accomplished progressive political scientists, and one of its most important liberal columnists, the word “racism” does not appear in the transcript once. That is because the progressive approach to policy which directly addresses the effects of white supremacy is simple—talk about class and hope no one notices.

This is not a “both/and.” It is a bait and switch. The moral failings of black people are directly addressed. The centuries-old failings of their local, state, and federal government, less so. One need not imagine what a “both/and” approach might sound like, to understand why a president of the United States can’t actually offer one. At best, one can hope for reference to “past injustice.” But in a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour—funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.”

Food for Thought:

There are a lot of think-pieces being published about the New England Patriots and Deflategate. Rather than posting a link, here’s my 1/2 ounce on the topic. 

The issue in question seems minute, but only if you take the NFL’s commitment to parity out of the question. The truth is that any team, on any given Sunday, should be built in such a way that it can compete with any other team. The salary cap and draft system bias the whole league towards fairness. If deflating the footballs gives a 1% advantage – or .1% advantage – it erodes the integrity of a game that has committed itself to competitiveness. In other words, it’s a big deal. 

It’s an especially big deal when – in light of the league’s parity – you think about the psychology of the game. One team walks out with a mild, almost insignificant advantage. *But they know it.* That’s a much bigger deal. Confidence leads to momentum. And momentum, in the NFL, is everything. 

It is also significant that the Pats – and Brady himself – could have eliminated a significant amount of suspicion and gossip by fully cooperating with the investigation. 

Lastly, the Patriots’ defense of their org seems to assume that NFL fans and officials are just plain stupid:

“Mr. Jastremski would sometimes work out and bulk up — he is a slender guy and his goal was to get to 200 pounds. Mr. McNally is a big fellow and had the opposite goal: to lose weight. “Deflate” was a term they used to refer to losing weight. One can specifically see this use of the term in a Nov. 30, 2014 text from Mr. McNally to Mr. Jastremski: “deflate and give somebody that jacket.” (p. 87). This banter, and Mr. McNally’s goal of losing weight, meant Mr. McNally was the “deflator.” There was nothing complicated or sinister about it.” 

‘Oh… that explains everything. You referred to one of your equipment managers as “the deflator” because he wanted to lose weight. Let’s drop the investigation and reinstate Brady.’ Give me a break. 

*** In the interest of full disclosure, I am a rabid fan of the Indianapolis Colts, and Deflategate only confirms what we have known for a bit more than a decade. *** 

Courage, Love, and Confidence in the Truth: My Reflections on Biola's "The Cost of Freedom"


A little more than a week ago, Biola University hosted an event called The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil. It was an evening spent exploring civil disagreement, featuring Robert George and Cornel West, and moderated by Rick Warren. With West coming from the political and theological left, and George and Warren coming from the right, one would reasonably have expected fireworks. I won’t recount the event blow-by-blow; the video is online and well worth taking the time to watch for yourself. Instead, I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged over the two-hour long conversation.

I was struck, first and foremost, by the way each speaker demonstrated a kind of mastery of language. I say “kind of” because each one’s skill was unique.  

Warren’s opening comments were, as Derek Rishmawy noted, epigrams: perfectly crafted sentences and phrases that carried a potent teaching point:  His speech demonstrated craftsmanship, carefully expressing wisdom to-go. You’ll remember what Warren says. He ensures it.  

George, on the other hand, spoke in syllogisms. Each statement just as carefully worded, but layered with nuance. A nod was given to every counter-argument. Every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. 

West set yet a third tone with his speech, and was as concerned with delivery as he was content. He knew just how long to enunciate the word “love” so that its emphasis – its absolute central importance – was crystal clear. He spoke in blues poems with flowing alliterations, rhyming thoughts like a Hebrew poet and occasionally rhyming words like Langston Hughes. There was a metered, musical quality to his speech.  

Historically, speech has been a powerful political tool, but contemporary society has evolved in such a way as to rob speech of its potency. We’re a culture of cynics – distrusting and mocking any efforts at sincerity. We are also a culture of tiny attention spans. If it can’t be condensed to 140 characters or summarized in a soundbite, we don’t have the time and patience for it. 

The Event at Biola made a point of making space for real speech, and the space it provided enabled us to not only gain a grasp of each man’s point of view, but of their vocation: Warren, the Shepherd, guiding the flock; George, the Scholar, pursuing the Truth; West, the Activist, stirring the heart. It was easy to find each person sympathetic, and to see how their vocation shapes their words and work. 

It was the depth of the conversation that made the evening compelling. Most debates I’ve witnessed – even in academic environments – feature men and women speaking past one another, parroting soundbites, and failing to actually listen and answer each other’s remarks. 

Depth in conversation comes as space is given to think, to fully articulate ideas, and to answer questions. Because this kind of space was extended – not just from Biola, but from each member of the discussion to one another – the  conversation was riveting. It took on a freewheeling character ranging from Shakespeare to Coltrane, from Chekov to the Constitution, from emancipation to ISIS. One can witness George and West “thinking together” as George described. And while there was much disagreement along the way, there never was a moment of hostility or disrespect, none of the all-too-familiar trampling of one another or cheap point-scoring.

It was evident from the very beginning of the conversation that these men not only respected one another, but liked each other. George and West continually referred to one another as “friend” and “brother.” They spoke of love as the foundation for dialogue and disagreement, and they modeled it, displaying their friendship as they exchanged ideas. 

So much of what happened at this event runs against our culture’s primary mode of talking about politics: careful speech, the ability to articulate complete thoughts, a foundation of love and respect. Contrast these with the talk radio, cable news, or Sunday Morning political roundtable discussions. Speech is either careless and vitriolic or so neutered and sanitized as to be meaningless. Politicians and pundits are given 30 seconds to offer reflections on ISIS, same-sex marriage, or American race relations (or worse, all three). And without question, the goal of each speaker is to dominate the competition. 

The Cost of Freedom didn’t describe an alternative model so much as it displayed one. Beginning with comments from Biola’s President, Barry Corey, a tone of generosity was set. Corey described Biola’s vision for cultural engagement as having a “firm center and soft edges,” a firm set of evangelical convictions at their core, and a gentle and generous way of engaging with the world around them. If your commitment is to Truth, and if you have deep confidence in the Truth, then there should be no fear in engaging people with differing ideas. 

Robert George described this as well. He talked about Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton who defends late-term abortion and has even argued for infanticide. George said that Christians must protect freedom for people like Singer to share their ideas, no matter how repulsive those ideas are. We must lovingly, winsomely advocate the Truth in the face of such ideas, and have confidence that the Truth will reveal itself to be more compelling, or will at least hold together under the assault of its attackers. West echoed this by quipping that he would “fight for the right for Rush Limbaugh to be wrong.” Warren chimed in too: “Christians who aren’t confident in their beliefs are afraid of competing ideas. I’m not. Bring it on.”  

Without ever saying the word, each man was encouraging courage as a necessary virtue for those who love the truth – courage to live in a world where the Bible’s account of the truth is constantly contested, and courage to protect that space of free exchange. 

In light of this, I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversy about Q Boston, over its inclusion of Matthew Vines and David Gushee – both of whom identify as evangelicals and advocate for a shift in the church’s stance on same-sex relationships. How could the evangelical leaders at Q allow space on their platform to Vines and Gushee? 

In response, Gabe Lyons, founder of Q, said, “Some people are afraid that if those who are theologically progressive are invited, it suggests they hold an equally valid idea… We still believe the historic view of sexuality is true, but we are also confident that the trueness of that view can carry its own weight.”

In other words, “I’m not afraid. Bring it on.” 

It strikes me that this approach works in two ways. First, it lowers the temperature on the rhetoric surrounding contested issues, inviting an atmosphere of exchange and genuine dialogue. Second, it charitably assumes that others (our “interlocutors,” as George might say) will extend us the courtesy we extend to them. Third (and this is the point that was utterly lost on some of Q’s critics), it assumes that the Truth will endure and (ultimately) outshine its competitors. 

At its core, this approach relies on virtues like winsomeness and hospitality. It calls us to gentleness and self-control, to refuse repaying evil (in the form of raging rhetoric) with evil. It doesn’t demand that we throw holy water on people whose positions we disagree with, but we might consider giving them something to drink and taking the time to listen to them. Apart from that, we certainly shouldn’t expect them to listen to us. 

In the events themselves, Q and The Cost of Freedom were very different. I will say that I wish Warren had pushed the conversation more deeply into areas where George and West disagree vigorously, like same-sex marriage and abortion. But nonetheless, the conversation between West and George was rich and not without conflict, and modeled something that was clearly counter-cultural - perhaps even subversive – to the shouting matches that characterize most of our political and theological disagreements 

And while not all of us have a platform like Biola or Q on which to extend such hospitality, we all have back porches and living rooms, lunch breaks and neighborhood haunts where we cross paths with people with whom we might passionately disagree. We might vilify them. They might vilify us. And then again, all of this hostility might just be guilt-by-association. Hospitality creates space to cut through the noise and meet one another as human beings. We can enter that space, learn a few things, and discover friendships. We can discover how the truth can stand up to scrutiny, and see how love can cut through a culture of vitriol and bile. But it takes courage to put them to the test.