Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meeting two great Canadian thinkers

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Charles Taylor, bridge-builder
Last year, through my repeated academic encounters with philosopher James K.A. Smith, biblical scholar Kavin Rowe, and sociologist James Davison Hunter, I came to know a bit of the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It was through his notion of the "social imaginary" that my most significant academic paper was glued together. His lectures have kept me awake and my mind alert on road trips back and forth between Virginia and Iowa. Taylor does a marvelous job of narrating intellectual history in the West, which is a very important task for any academic discipline.

Another Canadian who has contributed to my academic learning these past few years is David Cayley. In my first year of grad school, while studying restorative justice, I read his excellent book, The Expanding Prison. Caley's work in that book recently helped me piece together a paper on what I see as the Anabaptist influences on what came to be known as restorative justice.

Imagine my surprise then, when I came across this excellent series of interviews from the CBC, in which David Cayley interviews Charles Taylor about his life and work. I've only listened to the first episode and I'm hooked. It's an excellent summary not only of Taylor's life and significant work, but also Western intellectual history in general. It's like a "philosophy for dummies" course for those like me with no formal philosophical training, but who find philosophy tremendously helpful in their work. Check it out:

The Malaise of Modernity

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter after Communism

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Pirin Mountains, viewed from Bansko
(Photo by Daria's friend, Vili)
My friend Daria grew up in the town of Bansko, situated in the shadow of the Pirin Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria. Another shadow cast over the whole country was that of communism, effective from 1944 to '89. Under that shadow in her youth, Daria describes the Orthodox church in her hometown as only being frequented by grandmothers and the priest. Everyone else had too much to lose under the fear of being monitored and reported, thus losing jobs and livelihoods.

Daria recalls being drawn by a spiritual hunger for the biblical narrative at a young age, and the only place in which it could be experienced in these conditions was secretly in the home. So her grandmother would read her stories from an old, dusty family Bible. Even at a young age and under such tight restrictions, Daria had a quiet reputation for knowing stories from the Bible. For instance, her eye doctor would ask her to recite them for him when she spent a few weeks in the nearby town where he practiced. The doctor had no other way to hear these stories than from this five year old girl.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter in grad school

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
He's not here...and neither am I?
(Photo by Kodi Tanner)
Just over a month ago I wrote a post about the rhythm and rule of Christian life, aka spiritual disciplines. That post then got picked up and put on my seminary's blog. Looking back on it now, the post seems a little too confident on my part. Like I have my life together enough to be able to speak authoritatively about spiritual discipline.

Holy Week fell at an interesting time this year: right before finals. And if there's anything that the past month has shown me, it is how deeply bound I am to academic disciplines and how they enforce the rhythm and rule of my life. So Lent and Easter this year seemed as if they were playing second fiddle to grad school's bombastic tune.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

God's economy: Consumed by Christ

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Mo' money, mo' problems
Way back in late September of last year, early in the fall semester, I read a short op-ed piece in The New York Times that has stuck with me like a pesky grain of sand in my eye. The piece is called Economics Is not a Morality Play and was written by liberal economist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, appearing on his NYT blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal". The title of the post itself was enough to catch my attention and a few choice quotes from the piece helped form my rebuttal in a blog post called Economics is ALWAYS a morality play. My counterpoint took the shape of telling the story from Acts 16, in which a Philippian slave girl possessed with a spirit enabling her to see the future - making her owners a lot of money - begins annoying Paul and Silas. After a few days, Paul gets sick of this and casts the unclean spirit out of the girl, thus making her far less lucrative to her owners. The owners get irked and got the the two missionaries flogged and thrown in prison at the hands of the authorities.

Granted, the economic systems of the first century Roman empire and that of the contemporary U.S. are quite different, as are the slavery systems of the ancient world and what most Americans think of when they hear "slavery" (the terrible 19th century American kind), but my instinct from last fall remains intact, that economics is always moral. It is also always theological in a sense, or as William Cavanaugh puts it in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, "There is an implicit anthropology and an implicit theology in every economics." That Krugman asserts our "market economy is a system for organizing activity...with no special moral significance" simply won't hold up to the scrutiny of a theopolitical critique such as the one Cavanaugh conducts in Being Consumed. In fact, this little book of Cavanaugh's had been on my list for a few months already when I saw Krugman's piece, and it only strengthened my resolve to read it, but it took me another six months to actually find the space in which to fit it and justify it as being for a class. Oh, and I had to wait for my mother-in-law to give it as a gift for my birthday! (Thanks, Becky!)

Economics is an important topic in any age but might be especially important now in light of globalization and the recent global economic crisis. There is much a neo-Anabaptist and theopolitical Catholic reading of current economic systems and trends can do to help us see more clearly and engage more faithfully as Christians amidst the economic systems in which we're embedded. Cavanaugh's own goal for Christians is worth stating here, for we are to "discern and create economic practices, spaces, and transactions that are truly free... concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space - the space marked by the body of Christ" (viii). The economy of God will indeed have special moral significance!

Monday, April 11, 2011

"They've failed themselves."

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Prior to moving to Virginia to take up studies here at EMU, I was an information technology (IT) worker, or a “computer guy” to the layperson. My last full-time job in the IT world was as Manager of Software Quality Assurance at a health information management systems company in West Des Moines, Iowa. The IT world is a marvelously diverse one in a number of ways, which is particularly apparent in the vastly white state of Iowa, and my last employer was no exception. Amidst the numerous and wonderful working relationships I had with people from cultural upbringings far different than my own, one in particular stands out: my relationship with Mohamed.

Through circumstances whose details escape me now, Mohamed's and my working relationship eventually came to a place where our faith commitments – his Muslim, mine Christian – somehow naturally came up in conversation at the office. He and I both were in supervisory positions in different departments whose collective work brought us together for business, and it was around the edges of these meetings where our deeper conversations began to form. This prompted us to begin having periodic lunches together at a nearby Mexican restaurant, wherein we would gather over chips and salsa and the “Speedy Gonzales” lunch dish to further discuss our faith journeys and the challenges to people of faith in our secular age. In our talks, Mohamed would wisely point out that he was not the representative for all Muslims everywhere for all times, but simply one representative among many in a long tradition. So read on to learn more about my friend, Mohamed, and were his life as a Muslim in America has taken him...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Yes and No to restorative justice as "a Mennonite Thing"

Today I had the privilege to run up to the D.C. area and back to give a quick talk on "Restorative Justice: Revisiting Punitive Interpretations of the Bible" at a conference called "Student Learning and Global Justice" co-sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and the International Justice Mission (IJM). I shared a session with Dr. Ken Turner, a professor of the Bible at Bryan College, a Southern Baptist-affiliated school in Tennessee. Given that and the crowd was largely American Evangelical college students, it was a nice change of pace from the Anabaptist crowds I run in.

It was also fun to present the paper, because it's essentially making the case that the "creation story" of the restorative justice movement, which you can find in the paper embedded below, has some distinctly Mennonite-Anabaptist qualities to it. But I'm also careful not to say that restorative justice is "a Mennonite thing." The paper is a quick weaving of storytelling and history for restorative justice, the Western criminal justice system, and the Anabaptist movement as the back-story for RJ's "creation story."

The presentation followed Dr. Turner's discussion on slavery in the Bible and how we should work with it in our engagement with Scripture, as well as how we should think about issues of modern-day slavery, particularly sex trafficking. After my paper, we opened it up for another 20 minutes to discussion and Ken and I had a great time fielding questions together. Also, to the doctoral student with whom I talked afterward, I hope you check out some of the materials in my footnotes and bibliography!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Not a game I'd like to play

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For a class assignment this week at CJP, we were to watch a 4-part video series on game theory. I'll tip my hand by saying this is not a theory I'm inclined to jump on board with, but it's had some interesting consequences in its history, not all of which are bad. Check out the videos and then after the break I have some commentary...

Game Theory - Parts 1-4
(I'd embed them here, but they're not embeddable.)