Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: The Centrality of Fringe Hours @JessicaNTurner @christianaudio

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The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You was one of the best nonfiction audiobooks I've listened to in a while. Jessica Turner essentially writes about self-care in the midst of a busy life.

I know a lot about self-care. I've read/listened to several books on the topic. I've taught it and reinforced it in therapy and parent education groups. I still suck at it, but I'm familiar with the topic. This is one of the most down-to-earth, practical, realistic, reflective, and emotionally-connected books on the topic.

Probably the highest praise I can give for it is that somehow it actually resulted in my making some small changes in my activities, even before the book was over, to improve my self-care. The concept of fringe hours (finding bits and pieces of time throughout the day) was not terribly novel to me. I've very good at planning well ahead and being quite efficient. But I think the key that was most helpful in this text was helping me be even more aware of the prioritizing of activities, especially those that are meant to be for fun.

I think one of the strengths of this book was that it is not prescriptive nor guilt-inducing. Rather, it provides many different frames on life, time, and our choice of activities that can likely reach a variety of readers. Turner offers several practical examples of how to use time effectively to bring ourselves life. She makes a compelling picture of the centrality of making time for ourselves without overspiritualizing or overpsychologizing it while balancing that with strong substance.

My biggest criticism is that this book is really targeted toward women. It says so in the description, and the language used throughout the book reinforces that frame. Turner talks about tendencies in women, but they were all descriptive of me. As a psychologist, I don't see these trends as being unique to women, albeit there are some social pressures to conform into certain patterns. However, she may be unintentionally reinforcing some gender stereotypes. More importantly, by framing this text only in terms of women, she may have lost a massive audience who just as desperately needs to use their fringe hours (actually, I need it FAR more than my wife). But if men can get over the feminine pronouns, it can still be quite useful.

Finally, Carla Mercer-Meyer does a superb job of narration. My common complaint of nonfiction audiobooks is that they're often not read by the authors, so there's a sense of passion and personality that's lost. However, Mercer-Meyer conveys both so well that she could have been mistaken for the author. It was one of the best (if not the best) narrated nonfiction audiobook I've listened to (and there's many on my list).

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 16, 2015

Book Review: Ordinary: Extraordinarily Bad

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With a lot of my interest in valuing the Brother Lawrence-esque approaches to life, I was eager and hopeful to read Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down. The book description is very much in line with what I like to emphasize:
What if the path toward an extraordinary life is becoming more ordinary?
Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service. Tony Merida wants to push back against sensationalism and “rock star Christianity,” and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.
Through things such as humble acts of service, neighbor love, and hospitality, Christians can shake the foundations of the culture. In order to see things happen that have never happened before, Christians must to do what Christians have always done­. Christians need to become more ordinary. 
Let’s think together about how we, ordinary people, doing ordinary things, might turn the world upside down.
However, the book is minimally about the value of ordinary things. Rather, it is really a rather legalistic argument for some social acts with a lot of assumptions, offensive statements, and bad theology. Sadly, the narration made the entire book sound like a dry speech rather than something with passion and life behind it.

The biggest problem I had with this text was Merida's reasons for loving others. In biblical Christianity, we love others because we are infused with the love of God and this is the fundamental frame with how we approach other people. However, Merida asks us to love people to meet Jesus’ commands, to be able to preach the Gospel explicitly, and to show the world that Christians are not all that bad. These are not the reasons Jesus asks us to love our neighbor. They may be added benefits, but if we do "good works" for these reasons, we functionally doing the acts for manipulative purposes, and we will hurt and damage other people.

This is where he gets into some of his offensive framings. Some examples:

  • He talks about foster care not costing anything financially and actually coming with financial incentives. While technically true, we shouldn't even be discussing this if we're approaching foster care out of divine compassion. Having worked with plenty of foster families, I've seen some who essentially do it for the allowance. It's incredibly damaging. Those who foster for the right reasons wind up spending plenty of their own money.
  • Merida horribly adds stigma to foster youth when he explains that foster youth often age out with only $500, which doesn’t last long, so that is why, he argues, that it's not surprising that many former foster youth turn to crimes, gangs, and prostitution. He needs to do some accurate research and recognize the implications of sharing uninformed slices of the lives of the voiceless. This statement does nothing to help the situation and likely only damages a very difficult system.
  • He also adds stigma to prisoners. While encouraging readers to welcome prisoners into their homes, he explains how one family told the prisoner he could not be at home without another member present, and the father told his daughter to block the door with her dresser at night. This framing just reinforces negative (and often inaccurate) stereotypes about the untrustworthy and dangerous nature of former prisoners.
  • Merida sounded self-congratulatory about adopting a fifth child from Ethiopia after four adoptions from the Ukraine: Their reason for adoption was because "We had enough love in our hearts." He talked about the need to rescue children as fundamental to adoption. Later, he calls adoption the "Cinderella doctrine of Pauline doctrine." As being a proud adoptive parent, this is the kind of approach to adoption that stigmatizes adoption and causes true psychological damage in adoptees.
  • On a related note, his cultural insensitivity is astounding. He told stories of his Ukrainian-born son wanting a "sun tanned" brother (referring to his Ethiopian heritage) without recognizing the potential problematic interpretation. I don't blame the child; but this is a learning moment, even if to the reader only. He also talks later about his Ethiopian-born child not wanting to eat salad and thinking of his own mother's response to his asking why he needed to eat food: Because there are starving children in Africa. Rather than talking about how international adoption has opened his worldview and challenged his assumptions, he casually states, "Well, I guess that's not always true."
Merida also states things that are just wrong, both socially and theologically, that contribute to stigma and culture wars. Towards the end of the book, he asserts that despair is one of the greatest sins. This is one of the most psychologically harmful statements Christians make. And there's not legitimate theological support for it.

He also states at the start of the book about tolerance being problematic because we should not agree with others in the name of tolerance. Except tolerance is not agreement. It is simply acknowledging differences and allowing differences to exist without trying to force the other person to change. By incorrectly stating that one must agree in order to be tolerant, Merida is effectively advocating for a homogenous culture.

Finally, he argues that a quote attributed to Francis of Assisi ("preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words") is wrong. Merida emphasizes that words are always required, as we much explicitly direct people toward Christ. Some Christians believe this, but I find this to be a legalistic, narrow interpretation of the Gospel that misses its true heart, along the lines of the start of this review.

Ultimately, the book title and description is completely misleading. Merida argues that any ordinary person can engage in acts that some may call social justice (I have a hard time calling what he's saying social justice as the true justice component is missing, and there is a lot of social inaccuracies and offensiveness), but his whole book is about encouraging people to engage in prescribed activities that explicitly match biblical mandates.

In contrast, some of the central beauty of the Gospel is that lives (and even social systems) can be transformed by simply living life in a Christ-like way, loving people out of a fundamental character virtue stance of love and valuing of life and making simple decisions that contribute to systemic change that treats all people as made and loved by God.


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, February 2, 2015

Voting: By Needs or By Ideals?

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I had originally planned to write this back in November around election time, but I didn't have the motivation to sit and actually write it out. But the ideas are relevant year-round, I think.

I've seen plenty of commentaries focus on various groups, astounded at the group's minorities who vote for a different party or against a measure that goes against their needs.

But should we be voting just based on what we want? What about the role of sacrifice? Of doing what's right even when it's "not in our best interest"? In my view, doing what's right is ultimately in our best interest.

A couple of concrete examples:

Back in undergrad, the University of California system was talking about raising tuition for the first time in many years. Students were up in arms. Of course I didn't want my tuition to go up. It wasn't in my best interest (at least from one perspective). However, I supported the tuition hike because it seemed reasonable.

Similarly, we have lived in our little city for several years now, loving the small town feel and a variety of amenities, like it being a clean, safe city with nice parks. Like many cities, ours had some financial problems, so there was a measure proposing a temporary tax hike in order to keep these services going. After hours of reviewing arguments on either side, my wife and I decided to vote against our best interest and for a tax increase in order to keep what we loved about our city.

Shouldn't voting be about looking at the big picture and not just about my short-term desires? Why are we so quick to judge others by assuming what is in their best interest? And assuming what motivated their vote?

If we want thoughtful voters (I guess not everyone does), then we also need to recognize that not everyone votes based on what they think is best for themselves, but actually consider society as a whole. And there can be honest disagreement about what falls into both categories. But stopping assuming what is in other people's best interest may be a good start.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Will All Be Well?

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I've started subscribing to Richard Rohr's daily devotional, which I have found to be more thoughtful than most, balancing both an opportunity to pause and contemplate with intellectual growth and stimulation. Back in November, he had a post reflecting on Julian of Norwich's famous prayer, "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

I'm familiar with this prayer, having prayed it myself. It's a nice reminder of God's sovereignty, among other teleological ideas. But this time, I wondered how true this prayer really is. It depends on our end point, of course, as one could argue that once creation is renewed and reconciled, "all will be well."

But in the shorter term, not everything works out right. Babies die. Terrorists succeed. Good people go bankrupt. Hard workers lose their homes and jobs. People in therapy suicide.

No matter how hard we work, sometimes bad things happen.

So is saying a prayer that all shall be well still true? Or is it a Nietzschean opiate to make us feel better? Psychological research has indicated that the negative cognitions of the depressed (and I would add that the anxious probably fall into this, as well) are actually more accurate than the thoughts of those who are normal. The depressive things are reality. But it doesn't help us live, either. It seems that sometimes we need some level of ignorance or blindness in order to function appropriately.

I want to believe that all shall be well. Teleologically, I could say it's so. Frankly, I've had a remarkably blessed life. But in this world, I've also seen others in great pain despite faithfulness.

What is the balance between hoping all shall be well and knowing that it's not? Maybe it's the hope that's the key.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Retributive Justice: Human or Divine?

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Last week, I talked about whether God needs to be appeased. The big thing I want to emphasize in this sort of discussion is how embedded ideas of retributive justice are in our society. There is just a fundamental assumption that this is how things work, and of course God works the same way.

A poignant example of this, to me, was when I had jury duty recently. As I was walking into the courthouse, there was a guy with a bullhorn yelling about how people were going to Hell. Another was handing out tracts to everyone entering the courthouse. (Side note: While I hate this sort of representation of Christianity, I'm proud to live in a country where this can occur outside of a government courthouse. Further, what does it say about the claim that Christians are persecuted in the US?)

Having done my undergrad in Berkeley, I'm good at just walking past people trying to hand stuff to me. Trying to keep my temper in check for giving Christians such a bad name, I just said a polite, "No thank you" to the guy with the tract and keep walking. He then aggressively said, "Did you see the sign?!" referring to a cross saying something like, "Do you know God?" I responded, "I'm a Christian," to which he seemed to celebrate with a "Yeah!" So I turned around and said, "But you're doing it the wrong way!" I couldn't help myself. I'm unwilling to let others think I support such behavior.

Moving back from the side rant, what this indicated to me was the tendency many of us have to make assumptions about how things work and what others believe. These individuals were clearly promoting a highly retributive justice God right in front of an institution specializing in retributive justice (let's be honest, the US justice system is fundamentally about retributive justice--it frankly would be difficult to build a different system at this level). In many ways, this was a wise move--it powerfully reinforces the central principles of what they're trying to argue. If you believe in the governmental justice methodology, then it's easy to apply that spiritually.

But what if that application is wrong? What if retributive justice is really a human practicality (or tragedy)? What are we missing if we assume this approach to justice is from God?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Does God Need To Be Appeased?

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As atonement continues to come up in our Sunday school class, I continue to reflect on how much a substitutionary view has been central to our theological language. Propitiation is a perfect example of this. Propitiation is a common term used in atonement discussions and other areas of theology. It's a fancy word for appeasing someone, often the Divine.

There's just an assumption that someone has to be appeased. But is that necessarily so?

Humans need to be appeased; there's little doubt about that. But the Divine? When made in humanity's image, the Divine surely have to be appeased. However, from a Christian perspective, we are made in God's image, yet we are different. I'm increasingly convinced that the transactional, conditional acceptance notions we have in our theology are not from God, but from our broken human nature.

Others have talked about some of the problems with the various atonement theories, namely substitutionary and ransomed theories. The idea of propitiation is really central to these criticisms, as who does God have to appease and what kind of character does a God have who needs to be appeased?

The mimetic theory of atonement seems to address some of this. It doesn't minimize any of the biblical record, but in my view, recognizes the human theological evolution and understanding that develops over centuries/millennia.

Does someone need to be appeased for our salvation? Yes, but nothing divine. I'm inclined to believe it's us who need to be appeased for our own wrongdoings. We are the ones who can't get over ourselves. So God provides a way for us to move past it and to him.

How does this change our view of salvation? Of God and his character? Of the Bible?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health

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Tomorrow, October 7, is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, and this post is part of a synchroblog on the topic. A list of other posts in this theme are at the bottom.

Many of my readers know I am a psychologist with a specialty in spirituality and psychology. My BA is in Religious Studies, my PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) had an emphasis on spiritual integration, my dissertation and other scholarly work has focused on the topic, and I'm currently the chair of my organization's spirituality awareness committee. I have provided many trainings on the topic of spirituality and mental health.

Through it all, one of the most common issues is the apparent contradiction of spirituality and psychology, especially within the Christian traditions. Scathing comments from some of psychology's biggest initial names (like Freud, Ellis, and Watson), have really shaped the landscape of interactions between spirituality and mental health providers. Both sides are often afraid to talk to the other based on the assumption that they hate one another. What we need is peacebuilding.

Accurate information can be extremely helpful for peacemaking efforts. So I want to share some history about spirituality and mental health to help demonstrate that the two have, historically, actually been more partners than enemies.

In fact, the earliest people to provide assistance were faith communities. The fourth and fifth centuries included the building of monasteries for the mentally ill by St. Basil in Caesarea, St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and St. Benedict in Monte Cassino. Just by the individuals' titles emphasizes that these were not small, unknown efforts, either. The Middle Ages provided government asylums, where the public could sometimes pay to watch the mentally ill in chains for entertainment. Phillipe Pinel, a French Roman Catholic, was a major advocate for reform of these asylums, and his reforms spread throughout Europe. An English Quaker, William Tuke, established the York Retreat for the Humane Care of the Insane, and his model spread to the US. Today, many faith-based or faith-friendly organizations and institutions focus on humane, ethical treatment of the mentally ill. Some examples include LDS Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federations, Institute for Muslim Mental Health, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, NAMI’s FaithNet, and Mental Health Ministries.

Much to the surprise of many in the mental health world, it has, in fact, been individuals of faith who have led many of the efforts to improve the treatment conditions of the mentally ill. Some of the most inhumane efforts have been from the biggest critics of spirituality.

On the mental health side, virtually every major professional organization lists appropriately addressing religion or spirituality as part of their ethics code now. This includes the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. The public mental health system even acknowledges the importance of spirituality in treatment. See the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative and LA County's spirituality efforts, including a Clergy Advisory Committee and an annual conference.

While not everyone on either side of spirituality and mental health are interested in collaborating and making peace, increasingly, most people are interested in not only being cordial, but finding ways to be mutually reinforcing and beneficial. So let's stop making assumptions about each other and assume we have the same goals at heart.

Shameless plug: For those in Southern California and interested in these topics, I'll be on a panel at the University of Redland's Symposium on Integrating Spirituality and Mental Health on October 29. More information is available here and here.

Other synchroblog participants:

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).