Monday, June 22, 2015

Muse: Technology-Assisted Mindfulness

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The Muse is a relatively new product, dubbed the "brain sensing headband." InteraXon, the company behind Muse sent me a Muse to review. I also had the opportunity to have a short interview with InteraXon's co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Trevor Coleman. Below is a thorough review of the device and its application. It starts with some background on mindfulness and neurofeedback, so skip ahead if you're familiar with these topics.

Background
Mindfulness is all the rage. Corporations are promoting mindfulness at work, and mindfulness-based therapies are the focus of regular research in the behavioral health world. I've seen the benefits first-hand, being intensively trained in the mindfulness-centered Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and therefore regularly teaching and leading mindfulness activities. More and more people are also recognizing the congruence and benefits of spiritual forms of mindfulness to enhance their spiritual lives, as well (centering prayer and lectio divina can be considered forms of mindfulness).

For those unfamiliar, mindfulness has many different definitions and forms, but my oversimplified summary is essentially awareness of and being present in the moment. It has been shown to be helpful for things from depression, anxiety, and ADHD to improving relationships to enhancing one's spiritual life. There is a lot of overlap with meditation, which is in some ways a specific type of mindfulness, where one maintains attention on a single object, thought, phrase, etc. Based on my training and a sense that people are more open to the term "mindfulness" than "meditation," I tend to use the term "mindfulness."

A year or so ago, I explored neurofeedback for my department as a potential intervention we might want to consider. In short, neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that uses EEG (electroencephelography) technology to provide feedback to a user about their brain activity. Biofeedback traditionally focuses on easier-to-capture biometrics, like heart rate, breathing, sweat level, and muscle tension, to provide immediate feedback to the user about physiological symptoms related to a variety of conditions. It has been particularly effective for anxiety disorders. Raising awareness of one's physiology, even parts that we cannot directly control (like heart rate), allows us to adjust (sometimes subtly and unconsciously) parts of behavior (including breathing, elements of attention, etc.) that help us become calmer and in turn impact the involuntary physiological symptoms that create conditions like anxiety. This immediate feedback reinforces new skills that help us better cope with emotional dysregulation, and these skills generally "stick" after therapy ends.

I see neurofeedback as essentially a more efficient way of reinforcing skills, especially around mindfulness. Brain waves are not something we can directly control, but our behaviors influence brain waves, which in turn influence behaviors. Changing some of our behaviors, such as where we direct our attention and how we breathe, impacts our brain activity, which reinforces calmer, more focused behavior. Some neurofeedback providers claim their systems directly change the brain. I have seen no evidence of this, and I view it as either a blatant lie to sell a product/service or ignorance on the part of the clinician (I'm not sure which is more dangerous, frankly...). This is an important distinction, as many people would be (appropriately) concerned about direct brain intervention.

The beauty of neurofeedback and biofeedback in general is that they help us become more aware of our bodies to aid us in shaping our behaviors and building new habits that allow to live healthier lives. It's actually a very natural, culturally sensitive, non-invasive way of improving all elements of holistic health, including physical, psychological, and spiritual.

Neurofeedback can be quite pricey, easily running at least $1500 for a course of treatment by a licensed provider (still cheap if it's effective). Some insurances cover it, some don't. But does all treatment, especially when it's focused on improving health rather ameliorating pathology, need to be mediated by a provider? What is appropriate to be done on your own? Health care providers regularly encourage at home practice of a variety of exercises that shape our behavior (think diet, physical exercise, relaxation exercises, thought records, etc.). Mindfulness is regularly "prescribed" as an exercise to practice on your own after some education about how to do it (which does not require any licensed provider). So why couldn't technology-assisted mindfulness be done on your own?

The Muse Method
Enter the Muse, the "brain sensing headband," which I see as essentially a $300 consumer neurofeedback device focused on reinforcing mindfulness. Now to be clear, this is not advertised nor meant to be a health care device or to take the place of any professional advice. It is "a brain fitness tool that helps you do more with your mind by helping you calm and settle your mind." InteraXon, the company behind Muse, has a long history of brain sensing technology integrated into consumer life.

InteraXon generally uses the term "meditation" in conjunction with the Muse, as it is currently based on maintaining one's attention on an object. When using the Muse, there is a one minute calibration to ensure the Muse knows what an active brain looks like for you (everyone's brains are quite different). Then you engage in a focus activity for a length of time you choose. The calibration and activity are done with eyes closed, and the instructions are to focus on your breath, a common mindfulness meditation that is also convenient as it can be done anywhere, as needed (we always have our breath with us!). The feedback portion is achieved through sound. There are currently two audio environments, one a beach with a windstorm, the other a rainforest with a... (wait for it...) rain storm. Coleman stated, anecdotally, they have found people who want to boost their mind use the storm, while those who want to relax use the rain. Interestingly, I prefer the rain, and my interest is really relaxation... The more you maintain focus on your breath, the calmer the sounds are. When your brain waves hit the "calm" region, you also start collecting birds.

The mindfulness reinforcement comes via calmer, quieter sounds when you are focused and increased storminess when you get distracted (quite parallel to how our brains can feel!). This can be a very effective way to raise our awareness of distraction. It is very easy to practice mindfulness and not realize you are distracted, so this is much more valuable than one might realize. While the storm can be very helpful in raising awareness of distraction, I found that over time I could sometimes tune it out (that was usually when I was quite distracted). More significantly, sometimes the storm made it harder to focus on my breath and could lead to frustration with not getting calmer. Lowering the volume seemed to help a great deal. A recent app update gives much more flexibility in adjusting volume of different sound elements. I highly recommend trying out different volumes to find a "sweet spot" of what's most effective for you.

Coleman explained they are exploring additional exercises and feedback methods. That's the benefit of modern technology--software upgrades can provide a lot of new features for the same hardware. While there can be no guarantees, I wouldn't be surprised if some good new features are available in the near future with no new hardware investment required. I also recently took a survey that indicates InteraXon is considering a freemium model for the software features. This makes sense from a business standpoint, but after investing $300 for a device, I hope they continue to provide significant software enhancements for free. Coleman had mentioned they were working on a way of normalizing one's calibration over time so you wouldn't have to do the calibration each time and so it would be more accurate. This was also mentioned in the survey. This is an example of something that I would hope would be free. Things like additional audio environments, extra challenges, advanced analytics, and performance comparisons with other seem potentially appropriate in a subscription context. There is no indication that a subscription would ever be required, and the basic features are still very effective and strong.

My Experience and Tips
While there are basic instructions that are available for the sessions, I think I significantly benefitted from knowing a lot about mindfulness. I was able to coach myself through sessions having this background, which I'm sure improved my performance. If you find yourself struggling with maintaining a calm state, I recommend doing some reading/training on mindfulness and its principles, especially not judging your own performance. Remembering to gently move our attention back is helpful. I would at times get frustrated with having a storm when I thought I was focused on my breath. This, itself, emphasizes a benefit of the feedback--sometimes we're not as focused and calm as we think. I found when I reduced my tension and just tried to have a posture (physically and mentally) of acceptance, my mind calmed faster and birds came and stayed longer. Trying to force myself to focus was often counter-productive. I discovered my brain also would not immediately calm when I redirected focus back to my breath. While a storm would come quickly if there was a distraction (like a cat jumping on my lap or a toddler being a toddler), the storm would usually take a few seconds to calm. This, in itself, is a good life lesson and practice of patience...

The App and Technology
It's also important to note that while your performance will hopefully improve, you're competing against yourself. With the current method of calibration, if you're having a calm day, your baseline will be lower, so it will be more difficult to achieve a high calm state (according to the software's scoring). Longitudinal calibration, if released, will be very helpful for more effectively tracking one's practice and assessing progress and challenges. In any case, the scores are relative to yourself. However, this is still helpful, as a storm in even the calmest state indicates some level distraction.

While I didn't try it, it could be possible to use the Muse with other kinds of mindfulness activities, like visual focus. However, the calibration would then have to be done with eyes open (just opening one's eyes increasing brain activity significantly). I'd also be curious to try other types of focus activities, like a centering prayer, where a word or short phrase is repeated. I would guess it would be more challenging to achieve an official calm state with this type of activity, as there would probably be more brain activity than with just focusing on one's breath.

The Muse team does a nice job of encouraging regular sessions in a variety of ways. The presence of a current streak and longest streak of doing session every day in a row has been very effective for me not yet missing a day since I received the device. They also have a variety of challenges that get you to higher levels. For those of us with a competitive streak, this encourages improving our practices in a variety of ways. I would sometimes do an extra session just to get to the next level. While it took a few days to have the time available, I wouldn't have done a 40 minute session without this challenge requirement. And it was not as hard as I had expected (and surprisingly quite pleasant!).

Technologically, the Muse connects to a phone or tablet via bluetooth. The pairing process is easy, and I experienced no problems maintaining a connection. Sometimes the sensors over the ears take a little longer to establish a strong signal, but I found if I just patiently wait (always less than a minute), they connect. I can easily go a week before charging the device, which is easy, as there are two micro-USB ports. A recent app update that allows you to see the current battery level is very helpful. The app itself is good looking and easy to navigate. The one thing I don't understand is the requirement of the screen to be on during a session. For long sessions, keeping the phone/tablet screen off would be helpful to save battery life. This may be a way to keep the bluetooth connection alive or something, but it's strange. I originally thought I'd like using the app on my iPad, but since there is not visual feedback during a session, I only use it on my iPhone, which I ultimately prefer. A smaller device to hold or keep nearby during a session is easier.

There were a couple of problems I had with the app recognizing times and days, which affected challenge completion. One email to support, and I received a very prompt, helpful response. It turns out there was a bug in the app, which was quickly fixed in the next update. As many of us know, customer service, especially with technology products, is of utmost importance and can make or break a product/service. From what I saw, Muse is putting quick, friendly, helpful customer care as a top priority.

Conclusions
So is the Muse effective? I'd say yes. I've known for a long time I "should" practice mindfulness on my own outside of the professional context. But it was hard to get the motivation to do so. However, I quickly looked forward to and really wanted to practice with the Muse. For me, playing with technology in itself is fun and a reinforcer, but I do notice I generally feel calmer and more centered. My mood does seem to be a bit better and more regulated after I engage in a session. I'm also more aware of being distracted throughout the day, which allows me to bring my attention back to the present moment.

While $300 is not cheap, it is quite cheap for this type of technology and could be quite worth it for the benefits. It is not a magic device; you have to work and keep engaged in the activities. Coleman explained it takes about 2-3 weeks for most people to notice a difference and regular users settle into a pattern of sessions 4-5 times a week. 15-20 minute sessions are often the minimum to be effective based on their initial findings, although I find 7-10 minute sessions are helpful and easy to fit into my day.

One of the things I really appreciate is that InteraXon is doing solid research on the device. They have partnerships with some universities using the Muse in various projects. They also ask users to opt-in to share their data for continued improvement. Their privacy practices seem strong and appropriate, and I encourage participation. The more users who contribute their data, the better chances at seeing strong updates that will help us all. While no research is yet published, anecdotal evidence of benefits matches the values of mindfulness, including improved emotional regulation, sleep, mood, interpersonal interactions, etc.

No formal case comes with the Muse, although the hard plastic packaging works well (and is what I currently use, although it's bulky and awkward). There is an official Muse case, which sells for $40, and doesn't seem much smaller than the clear plastic sales packaging. From reviews I've seen, many people question the price-point. For $300, it would seem appropriate to have a case included. I definitely recommend keeping it protected in some format, especially if you travel with it (to work, vacation, etc.). A universal headphone case or something similar might work, as well.

If you think practicing mindfulness regularly would be a benefit to your life, then the Muse could be an excellent investment. I've been using it for more than 60 straight days (every day since I received it), for a total of over 760 minutes of practice, and I plan to continue to use it daily. I even took it with me on vacation because of its benefits.

For those interested in purchasing the Muse, it is available through Muse's website, Amazon, some retailers in Canada, and will be in US Best Buy stores in mid-July.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this item free from the manufacturer. 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, June 8, 2015

Review: Desiring Atonement

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Atonement can sound like a boring, droll topic (and it is to many people). However, it's also central to Christian theology and the topic of many vicious debates (some people's ordinations and even salvation statuses have been questioned due to even minor differences in atonement beliefs). For those not familiar, atonement in Christianity refers to becoming reconciled with God. I have previously written on atonement, including problems with "traditional" atonement theoriesthe application of René Girard's mimetic theory to Christian atonement, and the fundamental question of whether God needs to be appeased.

A few authors have written on similar topics, but André Rabe's recent book, Desire Found Me, provides a very thorough exploration of how mimesis impacts not only atonement, but a variety of fundamental Christian theological points. His is an incredibly ambitious project, not just describing a mimetic atonement, but laying a foundation of how mimesis provides a better explanation of Scripture all the way back to Genesis 1.

Some might think this foundation is too much. To be fair, it can be a lot to digest, although he makes fine theological points accessible (with appropriate background) to those unfamiliar with the topics, while also not being overly simplistic for those with more knowledge of some topics (his writing structure makes it is easy to skim where appropriate). However, discussing things such as human nature, justice, and even Satan are critical to understanding and constructing a theory of atonement. Even while being familiar with and having written on many of these topics, Rabe provides helpful strong evidence and detailed explanation supporting more accurate Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture than other more human-centric hermeneutics. He provides a nice balance of his own writing with strong citations showing a solid scholarly approach to Scripture, hermeneutics, and Christian history.

For those interested in mimetic atonement, restorative justice, and love-centered reading of Scripture that is more cohesive than the limited narratives told by so many others, I highly recommend Rabe's text.

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, May 4, 2015

Offensive Supreme Court Same Sex Marriage Arguments

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There are many opinions about the arguments in and around the Supreme Court review of same sex marriage. Two stuck out to me as particularly absurd and offensive, likely because they struck closer to home.

In one case, Michigan's special assistant attorney general, John Bursch, argued that a central reason for the state being interested in banning same sex marriage was to protect the bond of children to their biological parents. Does he mean that my bond to my son (who we adopted) is not as significant or as strong as if he were of my own biology?! The relationships some stepparents have with their stepchildren isn't relevant? There are so many situations where a child is not bonded with a biological parent, but is intensely and beautifully bonded to another someone else as their parent that this is incredibly offensive.

Sure, one would be hard pressed to argue that a child not being parented by both biological parents isn't ideal, but it's reality. But this kind of language perpetuates stigma and horrid stereotypes. Many of these "not ideal" relationships can be incredibly beautiful and meaningful (and more so than the "ideal" situations). No one had better ever tell me that my relationship with Brendan is "less than" in any way. And I know all of the adoptive families I know would feel the same way.

In a similar vein, I saw an image of a protestor with a sign that said, "Every child deserves a mother and a father." Again, one could argue that maintenance of the biological relationships might be ideal, but it's not reality, and signs like this dismiss the impressive parenting of many people. There are many reasons someone becomes a single parent, for instance. The children should not feel "less than" in any way because of stupid statements like this.

I'm shocked at the short sightedness of these kinds of arguments to the Supreme Court of all places! Do these people not realize their claims also undermine "traditional" marriage? These assertions are some of the most absurd statements. Maybe it just indicates some people are really just grasping for straws and aren't truly focused on the wellbeing and health of children and families everywhere...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: The Challenge of Desire

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Desire can be controversial in the Christian world. The ascetic movement shunned desire, and a lot of American Protestantism followed the lines of Puritanism and the Victorian Era of strict self-control. There's something to be said for self-control, of course. Psychology, as well, has a lot to say on desire, with many theories focused on how to shape desire and how drives create problems. Yet modern psychological and theological research and trends have focused on the importance of desire as part of our lives that should not be ignored.

Wanting, longing, and ambition can be great drivers of progress toward God's will. They can also wreck great havoc throughout our lives and the world, of course. Balance is the key. Jen Pollock Michel's book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, appears on the surface to follow this line. In many ways, modern American Christians need to be taught to want. Or more accurately, taught to recognize their desire. As it was recognized as Christianity Today's 2015 Book of the Year, I had high hopes.

I firmly believe that God places desire in our hearts for a reason, but identifying the desire and pursuing it with balance can be a major challenge. Unfortunately, I didn't hear this in Michel's words. Rather, much of the book is comprised of lessons about who God is and the things God wants. There was a strong neo-Calvinist refrain throughout, emphasizing the importance of seeing God's sovereignty. Frankly, not much focus on true desire around here.

Toward the end of the book, she finally explicitly said what I had suspected was her thesis: "Holiness... will revise our personal desires." Like many of the neo-Calvinists of today, there is a focus on behavioral "holiness," conforming to certain beliefs about how God wants us to act. This explains her long theological diatribe--set our strong doctrine with which to align ourselves, then our behaviors will follow as holiness, and then our desire will be conformed to God.

This book is not really asking God to teach us to want, but rather to want what he wants. Wanting what God wants is not bad, of course; it is the prayer of many (most? virtually all?) followers of the Lord. However, there is a danger to emphasizing this approach in American Christianity--we've been consistently told our desires are bad, and we must ignore them and want what God wants, which usually matches certain rigid doctrinal statements.

The problem is that this leads to us ignoring, avoiding, and repressing our honest desires. This is not how to appropriately manage them, even if they're problematic. Rather, honestly acknowledging desire is the first step in evaluating whether we should act on it. And what about the possibility that God placed a desire and passion in us to move the world forward? Isn't that part of the role of the Holy Spirit? The answer is not necessarily to reshape our desires, but rather identify true, gut-level, core desire that drives our hearts and souls. These are not impulsive desires, but rather the soul longing. That is the want we need to be taught to recognize.

The saving grace of this book is the narrator, Karyn O'Bryant. She read it with emotion and inflection as if it was her own argument. She made the audiobook engaging.

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, April 6, 2015

In Memory of Dr. Robert H. Schuller

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A couple of weeks ago, I discovered I would soon be at my 400th blog post. I was trying to think of something significant for it. Then last week, Dr. Robert H. Schuller died, and I can think of no better way than to honor him with this post.

I have long thought that besides my immediate family, Schuller and his ministry has been the biggest impact to my theology, spirituality, and ministry. And that's, obviously, not a small thing to say. It's taken me a few days to put this together because it's hard to express even some of my thoughts and feelings in a coherent manner. Here's my attempt, probably more for my own processing than for anyone else.

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A brief personal history summary first, for context.

My knowledge of Schuller goes way back to childhood, before I became a Christian. My grandma would watch the Hour of Power, although I wouldn't pay much attention. My mom remembers my grandparents taking them to the drive in church when they were little and appreciating getting to stay in their pajamas for church. My grandma has a memorial brick in the newest campus building. It essentially functions as her memorial location for me.

My awareness of his ministry increased in high school after I became a Christian, but it was really my first year in college at UC Berkeley that made things connect. Going from a little mountain town to living in Berkeley was a culture shock, to say the least. And finding a church wasn't easy. I started receiving Schuller's daily email devotions, which helped keep me motivated, hope-filled, and focused on my priorities and central identity as a Christian in the midst of a lot of worldview challenge. Berkeley culture doesn't confront worldview in a kind way, but one of the things that was central to Schuller's approach and theology was being welcoming and inclusive, finding common elements of agreement among differences in worldview in order to improve the world. This helped give me strength and change my distaste for Berkeley's aggressive cynicism into something incredibly defining in my life, building a more dynamic, rich faith. When I was asked to speak about my experience in Berkeley for graduation at my church, I quoted one of Schuller's pithy sayings to represent how he helped me keep hope and tenacity.

When I moved back to Southern California for my doctorate, I heard about a new college/young adult ministry starting at the Crystal Cathedral, only about 45 minutes from where I lived, and I thought no harm in trying it out. In fact, I'd love to be able to actually be a part of that congregation. There, I met someone who would soon become a great friend, Bobby Schuller (grandson of Robert H. and now lead pastor of Shepherd's Grove and Hour of Power). Over the next few years, I helped build The Gathering, a emerging church-inspired "church-within-a-church" and even came on staff of the Cathedral for The Gathering. Obviously, Schuller's theology and intergenerational influence was felt throughout our work.

We at The Gathering had a very different style, but the foundational stance of hope and encouragement that Schuller promoted was pervasive and drew people who had been hurt by other institutional churches (frankly, not unlike some of Schuller's then-unconventional approaches). Eventually I moved out of the area and so had to find a more local congregation.

Suffice it to say that Schuller's ministry and my life have crossed paths in deep, meaningful ways for most of life.

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With that context, these are some reflections on how his ministerial approach and theology have impacted me.

While criticisms have been and will continue to be made about the Crystal Cathedral campus due to opulence, extravagance wasn't really the goal. Rather, Schuller's first intent around unique church structures was practical, to be inclusive of those who couldn't be a part of a traditional congregation. Guideposts' memorial is a good summary of much of his original ministerial intent. Schuller's point was to create a physical space that would help people feel a sense of holiness and grandness of God, especially via connecting to the natural world. For me, that's exactly what I felt around the campus. I loved spending hours studying or just meditating in the gardens. The stairs at top of the Tower of Hope, just outside the Chapel in the Sky, was my favorite place on the whole campus because of its balance of connecting with the natural world, feeling close to God, while also looking out over the community and remembering the mission of being in the world. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and were married on the Cathedral campus. My bachelor "party" was spent walking around the campus with my best man having some good, reflective conversations. So I have good memories there even apart from the relationships built via The Gathering. I'm regularly saddened by the fact that I feel like I have to apologize for misunderstandings of intent around the grounds. But personally, Schuller's architectural efforts help me reconnect to God whenever I roam the campus. I see this nonverbal piece of his message particularly influence my incarnational theology that is so central to my faith.

In hindsight, I can see so many impacts Schuller's theology and approach have made on me. His valuing of psychology likely had some influence on my profession, and I know his regular referencing of Viktor Frankl particularly triggered my interest in studying Frankl's work, which continues to be the foundation for my psychological worldview. I would regularly cite Schuller in my graduate school papers reflecting on my worldview and theology. His words and thoughts were gateway into deeper theological exploration and reflection for me.

A fundamental positive, encouraging theological stance is central to my theology, and I doubt that's coincidental. I'm sure his approach influenced me not only directly, but also via my grandparents and mom. This was and is a major distinction of Schuller's approach, which was often controversial. Central to my ministry and passion is helping people see and experience God as loving and accepting. Schuller helped give shape, theology, and purpose to this focus. A few recent articles have quoted him from a Christianity Today interview, saying, “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and un-Christian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.” There are many in the world who would consider this heresy. However, I increasingly agree with Schuller completely. Most of the greatest criticisms of Christianity and religion are from those who believe in the unbiblical wrathful God supporting retributive justice. Schuller has helped rescue millions from this spiritually and psychologically damaging perspective.

Many people don't realize Schuller's contributions to international dialogue and building bridges across groups. He helped open dialogue with the USSR (he was the first Christian to be on TV there, and Gorbachev was even a guest on the Hour of Power...). His son, Robert A. Schuller, has continued these efforts, engaging in regular interfaith peacemaking efforts. I believe his efforts to find peace among and value in diverse spiritualities influenced my ability and value of promoting the same. My dissertation was focused on exemplar Muslim and Christian interfaith peacemakers. As chair of the spirituality subcommittee at a public department of behavioral health, a lot of my efforts to open inclusion of spirituality are focused on reminding/teaching people that interfaith work can not only function, but it can be powerful, beneficial, and respectful. Schuller never abandoned, minimized, or apologized for his Christian faith in this interactions. Rather, he exemplified that living as a follower of Christ was the cause for these efforts.

Despite whatever fair or unfair criticisms people may have of him, at his heart, Schuller cared about people. He loved his family deeply and well (and I know they loved him back). He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to a hurting world. He helped reshape the structure of church in a way that met people where they were at in a new culture. Even Christianity Today recognized this influence in their tribute. He helped build cultural and religious bridges to build a better world. His methods may seem cheesy and dated to us now, but they were revolutionary and effective at the time.

We could do well to remember and continue the intent of reaching those ostracized by churches and broken Christianity in creative, hope-filled, and life-giving ways. Schuller's message was one of grace and love, and I will forever treasure him for it.

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.”

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).