Monday, April 14, 2014

What Causes Happiness?

On Saturday, my wife and I got to see a performance of Les Miserables in Riverside (which was excellent, by the way). On the way home, someone had graffitied a freeway underpass with "Happiness follows right living." I found it rather ironic that we saw that right after Les Miz. As Laci said, "That's Javert."

"Right living" (if groups of people can even come to a clear consensus on that) can lead to fewer problems in life. From that perspective, it matches up with some research indicating earning up to $75-80,000 per year increases happiness. The explanation is that basic needs are met, which lowers anxiety and therefore can increase happiness. So it makes sense that happiness could be increased by causing fewer problems for ourselves.

Let's take Les Miz again as an example. Valjean made some mistakes. They definitely impacted his happiness. But it wasn't right living that improved his happiness. It was being given compassionate grace when he didn't deserve it, didn't ask for it, and didn't even do something to accept it. And I would argue the ultimate right living that led to happiness was giving love and grace.

Contrast that with Javert, the quintessential Pharisee. He, like Paul, lived according to the law as best as any human could. He was blameless. But was he happy? Not at all.

In fact, the climax of the Valjean/Javert storyline is focused around this topic of right living. Javert has lived rightly in his definition--according to the law. But he has virtually nothing to show for it. In contrast, Valjean has not lived rightly. But he has thrived. He has made a meaningful life for himself. This is what completely confounds Javert--he believes once a criminal, always a criminal.

Many people, especially with Christianity, believe that if we do everything right, things will work out great. There is some truth to it, but I've seen (and experienced) my fair share of this formula not working. Right living does not necessarily lead to happiness.

The other consideration is the relationship of happiness and meaning. We discussed this in Sunday school last week, and there's some good research articles on the topic. Ultimately, I would argue meaning is more important than happiness and can lead to happiness, but happiness won't lead to meaning. I'm not convinced rule following or right living will lead to meaning, either. That doesn't mean we break rules--they are there for a reason.

I would propose that we need to recognize the law and rules for what they are: Something practical to help social cohesion and dynamics. But right living is not about law. Rather, I would argue that Christians should define right living in terms of love. To quote the end of Les Miz: "To love another person is to see the face of God." That sometimes means breaking some rules. And love is central to meaning-making (both philosophically and from research).

I would rather break a rule in favor of love and compassion and thus make meaning at the expense of some happiness and comfort than maintain the law and live like Javert.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What Counts: Who You Are or What You Do?

The Dark Knight trilogy is one of my favorite film trilogies. I've always loved Batman, and Christopher Nolan's take was exquisite, as many said. I was particularly struck by the moral, ethical, and spiritual elements, even when they were subtle.

The entire trilogy, especially the second film, is a great exploration of the experience of a dark night of the soul. While I doubt the screenwriters were thinking of this connection, the name connection makes the message all the more powerful.

A while ago, I was given the opportunity to get an e-copy of a compilation of the trilogy scripts along with storyboards (stuff I love to see). It's a great collector's piece for fans of the trilogy who like this sort of behind the scenes material.

No matter how much I read or watch about the trilogy, one element of the first film has always unsettled me. An on-going dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his love interest, Rachel Dawes, in Batman Begins was, "It's not who you are underneath; it's what you do that defines you."

In the context of Wayne's lavish, careless lifestyle (or so it appears), this sort of statement makes sense. But I'm troubled by how much the characters in the film never question the statement. And frankly, it's a very theological one. It's much along the lines of the relative importance of faith and works. It also intersects with psychology, as some therapies focus on personality and character traits while other emphasize behavior.

I've always been inclined to lean more on the side of identity being important. It is one's identity (encompassing personality, character, etc.) that drives actions. In the Dark Knight trilogy, Wayne was able to become an amazing Batman because of who he was inside, not just because he did certain actions. This is my primary criticism against a lot of strict behavioral models of psychology. Just because actions are taken doesn't mean internal change occurs. I guess the question is how important internal change really is. And if it's real and can occur. I believe it can, and Matthew 23:26-28 really resonates here for me.

How often do we see people do generous things, but only as long as others know what they do? I think those actions can still be valuable, but I believe there is a different quality to that sort of action and the truly heart-felt behaviors. It's almost a difference between the anonymity of Batman's Bruce Wayne in comparison to the narcissism of Iron Man's Tony Stark (although the latter did do a lot of action for the right reasons).

It's hard to untangle identity from behavior on a surface, almost quantitative level. But qualitatively, there's big difference in behavior based on identity. And who you are underneath really does count.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

When Do We Engage in Debate?

Once again, great debate is raging in Christendom, casting judgment on who's in and who's out of Christ's love. Much text has been spilled on both sides of the World Vision debate. And I'm not sure much good is coming of the debate itself (likely because it's the equivalent of much yelling). My wife wrote a wonderful response (and I'm quite proud of her eloquence--I'm confident I wouldn't have had that much grace at the time).

As we saw people cite clobber verses that were completely decontextualized, I had an urge to argue their poor hermeneutics, history, and theology. My wife thought no good would come of it, as I wouldn't change their minds.

She's right--no amount of discussion, debate, or arguing will change the minds of people doing the talking. But can it impact those who are listening?

I've been in situations before when I felt the need to offer another opinion, not even necessarily to change the minds of anyone, but to raise awareness that people have honest disagreement and that other conclusions are possible. Last week, I asked if people really always reject the living God when they reject an angry, wrathful God. The problem is that often the only God some people have been told about is that one, narrow view. Without another option, many people feel like they lose all faith by changing their views.

In a similar fashion, if people believe the only way to be a Christian is one particular theological construct, when they have a concern with that perspective, then they either ignore their own reactions (which is problematic in many ways) or they feel like they have to abandon their faith completely. That is not fair (nor theologically accurate to most of Christendom) and only leads to more crises of faith rather than the building up of the body of Christ.

I loved World Vision's initial letter because it beautifully preached the centrality of love and unity in the Gospel. Their bullied retraction was the opposite, overemphasizing one issue that despite what they said, is not central nor fundamental to the Christian faith and never has been (except in a few minority denominations in the past decade).

Will we change the minds of those who publicly decried World Vision's grace? No. But if we stay silent and only allow Pharisaical voices to reign without dissent, then what message are we sending? The method is important, and there are many who responded in a much more appropriate and grace-filled way than I ever could.

But when is staying silent in the face of disagreement the best option? We see both responses from Jesus: from knocking over tables in the temple court to acting rather non-responsive in the face of crucifixion. As with most things, there is likely no perfect rule or formula. Context matters. But I'm not sure silence is always the best policy...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Guest Post: Ashamed of Christian Intolerance

This is a guest post from my wife, who so eloquently commented on the World Vision debacle.
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I never post opinions about hot-button issues, but I’m so upset and ashamed with the way that some of my fellow Christians have been representing my faith lately that it’s really bugging me. My heart is hurting. Prepare to witness a rare Laci rant.
Really?!? Thousands of Christians suddenly pulling funds that go to a STARVING CHILD because they don’t want gay Christians in a committed relationship working to help feed that child?!?? I’m embarrassed that World Vision was essentially bullied into reversing their (brave) policy. And that’s exactly what it was, bullying...threats of pulling funding unless they explicitly and publicly called out homosexuality as a sin, and said you can't work there if you disagree. Why did it have to go there? This is not about whether being gay is right or wrong. People missed the point completely. You can think it’s a sin and be a Christian, and you can think it’s not our place to judge and STILL be a Christian. That’s a whole separate issue that I’m not discussing here, it’s not relevant. They were not saying it was right or wrong, they were saying “let’s not be so divisive. There’s been a lot of hurt caused by this debate...we want to be an example in working together despite our differences and not discriminating.” Sexuality is not central to our faith, as much as many seem to think it is the be all end all. Very little of the Bible is devoted to that issue; far more is devoted to admonishing us to love others. Again and again. To forgive others. To love God. But that message gets lost in the stream of debates. So many are focusing on it, freaking out as if your view on it determines if you’re going to heaven or not, or that if gay marriage is allowed, it means heterosexual marriage is being torn apart or diminished. That’s just silly. My personal relationship with Jesus, as well as my relationship with my husband, is not threatened by anyone else’s relationship with whoever they love. And I believe that God cares far more about how I treat my fellow human beings than what I think about gay people. Why is this the main issue Christians today think they need to fight for?!? Why not focus on the things that really matter?
World Vision stated it so well in their first statement about it when they said “"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he said. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage." Bravo! Many denominations and respected Christian leaders are divided on that issue, so they decided it was best to not formally take a side and instead try and unite Christians to work together despite their differences. There are many other issues that are not anywhere close to being the difference between salvation or not. (Imagine their job interviews if it continues like this...”Were you baptized by dunking or sprinkling? Does your church use a rock guitar in their worship service? Yes? Oh, sorry, guess you can’t work here, our policy says you’re not a real Christian, so you’re not fit to distribute food to the hungry.”) World Vision also has stated they will not take a formal stance on things like divorce/remarriage, evolution or female pastors, as it should be...there’s disagreement on those, and Christians on both sides of the issue that both have convincing arguments. They know that they are a company that represents Christianity as a whole, not one particular view of Christianity, and that ultimately, those issues should be discussed at a church level. It’s not like they are God handing down a declaration of what is counted as Christianity. We all like to think that only our denomination is the right one with all the answers, but it's simply not true.
But instead of inspiring unity World Vision was shown that fear of homosexuality outweighs a lot of Christian’s desires to help the poor and hungry. They just couldn’t support an organization that might work alongside those that Jesus himself would probably welcome. I feel like homosexuals are the lepers of today...people who Christians are afraid to touch, afraid to show compassion to for fear of getting “infected.” Sometimes I’m outraged at how so many Christians put “calling out sin” above “love your neighbor.” It’s just Not. As. Important. Telling someone they’re a sinner rarely endears them to Christianity. We all know that already. But I saw a lot of formerly skeptical atheists give a nod to World Vision’s initial decision and how they were impressed at their openness. I bet they’re doubly turned away now, hearing the new decision. How many of those who might have embraced Jesus are now forever hardened against the church because of how they are seeing Christians behave in this situation? We claim to be loving and then we go and abandon an already struggling child because our ideas were challenged. It saddened me greatly hearing World Vision recant something that just yesterday I viewed as a step in the right direction of loving and recognizing our fellow human beings the way we are supposed to as Christians.
I have to restate, this is not a debate about whether being gay is a sin or not. I’m not going there, let’s not debate that. It is the fact that Christians were so fast to immediately drop over 2,000 children that they sponsored just because World Vision said they would not take a hard stance. Church leaders even told their members to pull their funds. That is wrong on every level. We should be ashamed that the world is seeing Christians in that light. If you disagree with the policy that much, fine, at least finish out the year and don’t renew again, go support another charitable organization. But don’t abruptly stop supporting someone who relies on you, in a spoiled fit to prove that you hold the power.
I think I’m going to go sponsor a child now. If you agree with me that Christianity is more than political stances and religious rules, please consider doing the same.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Do People Actually Reject the Living God?

With the prevalence of social media, it is easy to find people very vocally proclaiming why they do not believe in God. Oftentimes, it is because of how other people have presented God or done things in God's name, usually connected to hate, violence, and vengeful wrath. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield shares many examples of this from the LGBT community in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. These individuals say they could never believe in a God like that. In The God-Shaped Brain, Tim Jennings shares an anecdote of a patient saying that, to which he responds, "Good for you. I wouldn't believe in that God, either."

The traditional Christian response is to assume that these individuals are truly atheists or agnostics and do not love and appreciate the Living God. But I've been wondering if that's necessarily true. In these types of situations where the only explicit exposure someone has had to the construct of the Divine is this negativistic view of God and this construct is rejected, are these people necessarily rejecting the true God? Or are they simply rejecting a false, man-made God? Is it possible that they, in fact, recognize, appreciate, love, and even worship the Living God who transforms people's lives but just don't recognize him by name because of what they've been taught?

When labels and categories can be so destructive because of stereotypes and misrepresentation, is the label someone gives God necessarily important if they recognize him and relate to him anyway?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Do We Really Need More Churches?

There's an old movie theater about a block from our church, which shares the corner with two other churches. A couple of months ago, my wife and I noticed a ton of people milling around the theater on Sunday mornings and new signs popping up. We discovered there was a new church that sprung up there. I don't know much about it except that it's aimed at young people and families with a contemporary vibe.

Often, I hear of churches in the US advertising how many churches they have planted in their area or around the country. Being a church planter is seen as one of the holiest roles a Christian can play.

But I've been wondering if we really need more churches, at least in most of the US.

Going back to the new congregation, that now makes at least four congregations within one block of each other (the other three are all about 125 years old, by the way). What purpose does that serve? Does it really help spread the Gospel and bring more people to Christ? I'm skeptical of that, as there's evidence that oftentimes new congregations' members are really just unsatisfied attendees of other churches. So the amazing growth of plants isn't necessarily people being added to the body of Christ; it's simply a rearranging of congregational membership.

Now there is definitely something to be said for having congregations that will meet the various diverse needs of the community. But in most urban to suburban areas, there will be a congregation that has just the type of worship style or ministry you're looking for. Do we really need another one duplicating existing efforts?

Sometimes a need isn't being met. Is the best option to just start another new church? What about efforts to work within your existing congregation and start a new ministry or outreach effort? Some church organizations do not respond well to change, so leaving may be the best option, but perhaps there's another existing congregation who is willing to partner rather than you having to start out on your own.

I don't know anything about this new church or what the reason they've started is, so this really isn't a critique on them specifically. If they can touch people's lives, then that's wonderful. But it got me thinking again and reflecting on the increased fracturing of the Church and wondering what benefit it actually provides today.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Expositional Preaching on Ruth

My faith has increasingly focused on the centrality of love in the Gospel. My professional perspective is oriented toward love in relationships (not always framed in those terms, but with that concept). So Paul Miller's book, A Loving Life In a World of Broken Relationships, sounded intriguing. It was better than a pop-theology/pop-psychology book in that Miller grounds most of his assertions in the Bible. But in reality, it was essentially a series of expositional preaching lessons on the Book of Ruth.

While the topic of expositional preaching can be controversial in itself (some say it's the only way to preach, others think it's horrid and unhelpful), I think it can be useful, but if done right. While I found it interesting doing a sort of in-depth study on Ruth, the re-connection Miller attempted to make to the contemporary world was not terribly smooth. Some of the major problems were with his misrepresentations of psychological processes and groups of people with whom he disagrees.

For instance, a central punching bag in the book is what Miller terms a "feeling culture." This refers to putting feelings as primary and paying attention to them as an element of authenticity. Miller claims some parts of prioritizing feelings that are just simply not true. He asserts that people from this perspective believe that in order to be authentic, you have to do what you feel. Not true. As a psychologist, I definitely put a priority on both feelings and authenticity, but feelings are only one part of who we are. Ignoring them is as inauthentic as letting them bulldoze over our rationality and other priorities. He also claims that the Christian value is to just not let our feelings affect us. This is a major myth in conservative Christianity, and it's just not possible. The reality is that emotions (what he really means by feelings) are always occurring within us and always affecting us. That's part of being human. But that does not necessarily mean that we choose to behave based on what our emotions are moving us toward.

He also makes big claims about other groups/movements/perspectives, like mysticism and meditation. Having studied both academically, I can say that Miller clearly does not understand these concepts, instead going for oversimplistic stereotypes created by people who have had little to no exposure to what these ideas are really about. Unfortunately, Miller uses these various constructs to differentiate his claim of what love is. If he truly understood these other cultures, he would know that they are not necessarily as different from his approach as he thinks they are. They're definitely not as threatening.

Arthur Morey narrated the audiobook, and I've listened to many of his books. He has a great voice, but this book just fell flat. It sounded almost monotone. I'm not sure it was Morey's fault, but perhaps the unengaging content that felt like a dry sermon. I had trouble listening to the whole book and regularly found myself having to rewind because I tuned out. It's really unfortunate because there was potential for a lot of good in Miller's text. It just needs a major revision for accuracy.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Questions?

Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).