Category Archives: Sociology

Rebuilding the Feltboard World of Childhood

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Baker Academic, 2013) $35.61

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For those paying attention, Joel B. Green (newly appointed Dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of Theology) has become the preeminent name in collecting great scholars of New Testament studies under one cover. His previous titles are a compendium of established names or those destined to become “The” expert on any given subject. The World of the New Testament proudly joins Green’s previous works, offering profound yet digestible essays rivaling if not exceeding seminary offerings.

From chapter 25 & 26, “Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices” by Archie T. Wright and “Jewish Education” by Kent L. Yinger

A strength of The World of the New Testament is the collection of essays on Judaism. This is, one imagines, thanks to the work of N.T. Wright’s energetic effort towards refocusing our understanding of Christianity’s indebtedness to Second-Temple Judaism. Archie Wright’s essays, however, fall short as he focuses on the tried-and-true summary of Jewish identity based on temple, purity rituals, and diet. This is a large and tragic flaw in the collection. An astute reader would have hoped for more attention to the ways that post-exilic prophetic writings constructed Jewish identity, rather than the strong whiff of Pharisaism present here. I’m sure there is a joke to be made about how Archie and N.T. are at opposite ends, but I’ll bypass that cheap shot. Moving on, Yinger’s essay on Jewish education is quite sharp (thought painfully brief), summarizing methodology, the role of the family, and the rabbinic anachronistic effort to find personal and national identity as a literate race.

From chapter 31, “Homer and the New Testament” by Thomas E. Philips

Philips focuses on the indirect influence of the Homeric epics on the New Testament period by first pointing out their prominence in constructing societal expectations, then the individual’s pursuit of “honor.” By illuminating these key points, Philips conclusively dismisses all efforts to write Homer back into biblical sources while also affirming a classical education which might be able to extract more from Homer as NT studies move forward.

From chapter 39, “Syria, Cilicia, and Cyprus” by Mark Wilson

While reading The World of the New Testament on geography, I found myself wishing that a book such as this had been available when I was much younger. Before attending seminary, the best I could find was a gap-filled pictorial of Paul’s missionary journeys with elementary sketches of what Jerusalem “may” have looked like. Wilson’s essay on Syria, Cilicia, and Cypus not only gave a great summary of where Paul went – what the cultures were like, the local trades and so on – but also explained why Paul was “led” to these “obscure” places. In reconstructing the culture, a wealth of new insight begins to flesh out what the challenges and strengths of the Early Church were so long ago.

All told, I can hardly imagine a greater supplement to introductory New Testament studies than Green, et al.’s The World of the New Testament. This truly has become one of my great summer reads, keeping me fresh on my theological studies while unpacking much of what I have already learned in seminary. While I am not a fan of Green in the classroom, finding him insulting and dismissive (why do the great minds of our time feel a need to beat those below them?), his expansive knowledge permeates this work in a way that makes the mind light up. In the last month, I have become inseparable from The World of the New Testament — it is what I have read when I lay down, and what accompanies me across the city during idle moments. Unlike other academic works which seem tedious or horribly dry, each of the essays here are entirely accessible and is a a treasure for those seeking to better understand Christian scripture.

Randall S. Frederick is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes for The Huffington PostState of Formation, and Theology & the City.

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Culture According to de Botton

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books, 2014) $26.95

NewsAlainEmbedFounder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton’s latest work The News: A User’s Manual aspires to be “the ultimate guide for our frenzied era” of news and is a good introduction to seeing news outlets as culture-making machines.

De Botton excels at presenting competing ideas and showing how both have equal merit. One of his recent works, How to Think More About Sex (2012), is an excellent summary of how culture presents ideas around sex and how individuals express that with each other. Surprisingly, he concludes that work by suggesting that Christian morality can “redeem,” even “save” pornography from it’s excess. That he is an avowed atheist of the loose French variety, and names Christian morality as the main suppressor of art, beauty, and sex further emphasizes this claim.

In reading his previous works, I have been impressed by how even-handed and fair he is. Which is why, knowing de Botton as a keen observer and precise writer, he disappoints with The News by creating hypothetical scenarios and broad cultural critiques rather than engaging with the world as it is. This may have served him well in the past while discussing religion and sex, but The News succumbs to it’s own grand vision of shaping a reader shaped by information informed by the reader. Think of the book as holding up a row of mirrors to one another. The reader walks through and, for a moment it is perhaps fun, perhaps disorienting, until higher functioning brain activity reminds them that this is a parlor trick. As a (sometimes) journalist, I found myself wishing he would have explained either more of how newsroom decisions are made or interviewed editors and journalists rather than focusing on his own pseudo-objectivity, inflating the reader’s sense of self, or congratulating the reader for looking down their nose at another. Case in point, in the middle of the book he discusses financial reporting and states:

It isn’t only the scale of the economic machine that can silence us, but also its complexity. On a miniscule percentage of the populations of developed economies have any solid understanding of the workings of the economic system they exist within. Most of us will struggle to grasp quite what might be going on within essential terms like arbitrage, Basel 1 and 2, cyclically adjusted current budgets, price/earnings ratios or quantitative easing. As we follow financial events in the news, we may ask, and not for the first time: ‘What is the growth rate of money?’ ‘How do hedge funds operate?’ ‘What does the LIBOR rate determine?’… Those kindly commentators occasionally employed by news organizations to help us with our confusions certainly try hard to offer us explanations, but perhaps because the concepts that dizzy us lack connection with anything in our day-to-day lives, their explanations have a habit of leaching from our minds just hours after we have heard them. (130-31)

In a chapter titled “Celebrity,” de Botton educates the reader on ancient hero-worship practices before naming the way that envy cripples individual expression. Then he makes a telling statement:

Too many random reminders of other people’s success may simply terrify us into inactivity and unwittingly prevent us from putting any single plan into practice. In order to achieve anything on our own, we need to be free for extended stretches from the psychological pressures exerted by news of others’ feats. We require periods of inner seclusion and calm if we are ever going to finish off something worthwhile: that is, something that we may ourselves one day be envied for. (173)

de Botton makes a case in each of the six areas of examination – politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption – that it is insecurity which compels us to have our favorite 24-hour news source in the background, to constantly check social media to see what friends are up to, and to somehow form our own identity in light of the deluge. Some, like Noah, become despondent and retire to happy hour. Others, like the children of Noah, gradually forget What Happened and move out to their own entitlement.

Still, de Botton is true to form in that he raises incisive and implicit questions. Do we really want the news to tell the truth? Or would we prefer to self-medicate with distraction? These are good questions, and he excels at framing them in a digestible way. But as a former journalist, I can’t help notice that de Botton dwells on identity formation instead of “the hard news” of an event. In concluding the work, he notes that individuals select their news sources to assist in identity construction but does not really dwell on his initial inkling that news outlets actively seek to shape their audience. Notice the contrast between his initial thoughts and conclusion.

The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities. (11) 

Far from helping us develop a rich and complex individuality, ‘personalized news’ might end up aggravating out pathologies and condemning us to mediocrity. Imagine how personalization would have worked for, say, Marie Antoinette – someone temperamentally squeamish about distressing Political news and who would have been drawn to turning up the dial on Fashion and Entertainment… Personalization would be an improvement over the current editorial system if, and only if, users had a highly mature and complex sense of what sort of news they needed to hear. But this would require them, before they could be let anywhere near the dashboard used to program the news-stream, to get to know their own souls extremely well. (244-45).

One critiques the newswriter for failing to present their effort to shape an audience, the other critiques the audience for being incapable of properly choosing to know that which is best for them. In like kind, de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual offers six poor case studies in areas of news which likely interest us but fails to explicitly disclose the kind of person it seeks to create – the self-knowing contemporary individual whose individual pursuits and preferences create a bubble of individualized self-actualization “ready” to take the world as it is… but who is entirely unprepared to notice others.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

Walking Home

By Alan Roxburgh, cross-posted with permission from The Missional Network.

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, Ken Greenberg (Vintage Canada) $21

At first glance this would appear to be a book that has little direct interest for a busy denominational executive or local church leader. But it’s worth the read. It is one of those books that crosses over genres and types. It surprises one with its insight into the art of cultivating the kind of imaginative change leaders are facing in the midst of deep, disruptive transformations.

Ken Greenberg is an architect addressing questions of how to make cities the creative, livable spaces of human thriving they were always meant to be. He learned his trade in the early seventies just as the oppressive modernism in city construction had reached its apex. Architects, urban planners and politicians were beginning to recognize that modernism, in all kinds of unanticipated ways, had created cities that weren’t contributing to the thriving of people in urban life. By that time a whole way of design, planning and construction had come to shape city life. Old, mixed-use neighborhoods had been bulldozed to make way for sparse, functional high rise towers separated from work, play and shopping in the conviction that this rationalization of efficiency would result in the urban utopia. Pathways through neighborhoods had been replaced by sleek highways and passovers that quickly moved people in cars through cities while also reducing the amount of face-to-face street-level engagements among people.

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Invisible People: An Interview with Christopher Chinn

It was…pretty hard to see how paintings of pretty people leisurely reclining on beautiful hardwood floors, saturated in sunlight, could be relevant when thousands were outside my door reclining in filth on the streets for years on end.

Christopher Chinn just completed a larger than life sculpture of a homeless man reclining on the sidewalk and installed it for one day in May. I sat down with Mr. Chinn to find out what inspired this sculpture, what kind of conversation he is hoping to engender and what his future plans are for his work.

You can make a tax-deductible contribution to the future of his project entitled Encounter, through a partnership with US Artists. Click  here to learn more and contribute!

You just completed a larger than life sculpture of a homeless man. What was the inspiration for this piece?

The idea for this work began in 2008 during a solo exhibition of paintings. The gallery director and I were discussing ways to bring the homeless who had modeled for the work to the gallery. We ultimately decided that while well intentioned it was largely misdirected. What really needed to happen was just the opposite, to move the artwork out of the gallery and onto the streets where it could be experienced by the homeless without barriers. My interest in this subject matter developed about ten years ago after I graduated from USC. My first studio after graduate school was just south of skid row in downtown Los Angeles. There were four homeless people living in the long walkway to our new front door when we moved in. It was very difficult to witness everyday the living conditions of those on the streets. I realized pretty quickly after moving there that it was something I was going to have to deal with. I came to the conclusion that the best way for me to do that was with my artwork. It was also pretty hard to see how paintings of pretty people leisurely reclining on beautiful hardwood floors, saturated in sunlight, could be relevant when thousands were outside my door reclining in filth on the streets for years on end. My previous painting lost all meaning for me, and I realized that I wanted my work to directly engage real social issues.

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Reconciling Congregations

Churches, Cultures & Leadership, Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez (IVP Academic) $25

For decades church growth gurus have taught conscientious pastors that one important key to the numerical growth of congregations is the “homogenous principle.” That is, churches grow best when they focus on one type of person. “Like attracts like,” goes the popular adage. Who can deny the truth of this? A church full of young families, for example, is undoubtedly attractive to many other young families. In social settings people feel more at ease when they can identify others like themselves.

In their new book, Churches, Cultures & Leadership, Fuller Theological Seminary professors Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez, challenge this conventional wisdom, arguing that church leaders need to take a fresh look the role of churches in God’s reconciling mission.

[C]entral to this book [is the question], what is the call of the gospel on churches? How can churches model gospel reconciliation and be agents of reconciliation and justice in our cities and in our nation? We believe that God’s grace calls us beyond racism and ethnocentrism. The question is how to express the new reality of the gospel in ways that both celebrates our differences and draws us toward unity in Jesus Christ (17).

They approach their subject with academic rigor, pastoral concern for the church as well as a deep awareness of their own ethnic narratives and experiences. They have both served many years in multi-cultural congregations and now co-teach seminary students.

The book aims at an ambitious target: to outline a practical theology of intercultural, congregational leadership. Any one of those themes would be challenging enough, but here, Branson and Martinez work at integration. In the end, this is a work of practical theology.

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Occupation of the Territories

Occupation of the Territories (Breaking the Silence)

Since 2004, Breaking the Silence – a non-profit organization founded by Israeli military veterans – has been collecting testimonies of soldiers as they patrol the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Their most recent publication, The Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010, is made up of testimonies from 101 soldiers, both male and female, who served in the Territories since the beginning of the Second Intifada.

The book is organized into four chapters, built around four terms – “Prevention”, “Separation”, “Fabric of Life”, and “Law Enforcement” – which are used by the Israeli military to describe their role in the Occupied Territories. In the introduction, the editors write, “instead of explaining Israeli policy, those terms conceal it by wrapping it in defensive terminology whose connection to reality is weak at best” (21).

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The Joshua Delusion?

The Joshua Delusion? (Cascade Books) $22

Stories of God’s people carrying out acts of violence and even genocide at God’s command is one of the most intractable problems facing readers who accept the Bible as inspired scripture. Douglas S. Earl’s new book The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible tackles this problem head on, with grace and pastoral awareness rarely seen in Biblical scholarship. What is most commendable about Earl’s treatment of the book of Joshua is that he writes with a keen sensitivity to large group of Christians who will have difficulty with the historical and cultural analysis he presents.

Earl begins by asking, “If Jericho was razed, is our faith in vain?” a clever twist on an earlier question, posed by G.W. Ramsey who asked, “If Jericho was not razed, is our faith in vain?” Itself a twist on Paul affirmation in 1 Corinthians 15:14, Earl’s distinction reflects the changed priority of Biblical scholarship. An earlier age was concerned with how faith could survive the possibility that the narratives of scripture are not historically verifiable in the modern sense of history. Today’s concern is more ethical in nature. Can our faith survive the possibility that Jericho was indeed razed in the way Joshua describes? Continue reading

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Climate Refugees

© The MIT Press

Climate Refugees, Collectif Argos (The MIT Press) $29.95

Collectif Argos brings together a team of ten journalist and photographers to capture the stories of communities engaged in losing battles with their local environments. They call these people—and have so entitled their book—climate refugees.  First hand accounts of sand storms in China and the increasing disappearance of Lake Chad (which authors tell us was once bordered by three countries and now by only two) are almost as riveting as accompanying photographs—brilliant both in their portrayal of human experience and in their artistry.

The authors claim that our experience with climate change varies vastly based on our location. And it’s true, for those of us who can afford safe, clean homes in cities where we can fulfill our basic needs, understanding and preventing global warming is ancillary. But for the Kigiqtaamuit of Shishmaref, Alaska the problem is much more immediate. Their homes are literally falling into the ocean as icy coastlines creep closer and closer to their front doorsteps. The thinning ice has also hindered their ability to hunt effectively for their traditional food, seals. They fear that, along with the loss of their land and livelihood, their traditional culture (which includes sharing food and other resources with the sick and elderly of the community) will soon sink into that of ever-seductive North American mainstream. They’ve seen it happen to other villages.

Climate Refugees presents a compelling portrait of the first to be affected by climate change, a call to action for those of us fortunate to not be affected—yet.

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Baloney’s Not the Answer

Tunnel People, Teun Voeten (PM Press) $24.95

Teun Voeten is not the first to document the lives of the people living in the tunnel systems of New York City. His newly updated account, Tunnel People, is unique, however, because of Voeten’s commitment not only to his craft, but also to the people. Articles and books have been written about the tunnel people and Mark Singer’s award winning documentary, Dark Days, introduced the world to this underground society in what Voeten himself calls a “shockingly honest portrayal.” But Voeten went a step further, living in the Amtrak tunnel on Manhattan’s west side for five months over two years, digging beneath the surface of the tunnel people’s lives as well as their complex and diverse social environment. “To add something new to the earlier studies,” Voeten writes in the introduction to his book, “I decided to take the anthropological approach, using its favorite research method of participant observation” (3).

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Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League

© 2008, Jona Franks

Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League, Jona Frank. (Chronicle Books) $35

© 2008, Jona Franks 

Life as a student at Patrick Henry College is far from the images of beer pong and late morning snoozing that most of us conjure in recalling our university days.  Patrick Henry is a school on a mission to return what they see as a lost America to the conservative evangelical fold.  Its students are made up primarily of home schoolers and already its vast network of influential Americans has landed many of its graduates high powered jobs where they intend to carry on their alma mater’s mission.  Their rising influence alone is enough to cause curiosity from those on the outside, but the cool-headed ease with which they engage the secular culture and maintain their own subculture is puzzling.  It transcends the escapist nature of most religiously conservative groups. Jona Frank takes readers on a journey into the DNA of Patrick Henry College. Through a series of student interviews, portraits and personal assignments, the reader glimpses into the lives of the students: where they come from, where they hope to go, and what it means to be a part Patrick Henry.

© 2008, Jona Franks

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