Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'm Starting a New Blog

I'm going to move Blessed are the Uncool to the garage for the known future, as I'm starting a new blog with

It's called All Things New: A Conversation about Who We're Becoming. I hope you join me there.

Here's the introductory essay for ATN:

All Things New is about exploring our world with an attitude of big-hearted curiosity. This blog grows out of three distinct spiritual-intellectual turning points in my life.

1. Curiosity

At the age of sixteen, my father taught me the attitude of curiosity. We were in process of relocating to the United States, after several years in Switzerland. Destination? Wisconsin, a quiet state in the north-central part of the country. I was unimpressed. I had hoped for someplace exciting, as defined by an expatriate teenager whose window to America was Hollywood.

“There’s nothing to do in Wisconsin,” I told him. I imagined cheese, harsh winters, and the Green Bay Packers. None very compelling to me. “When we get to Wisconsin,” my dad told me, “you’re going to find people who live there by choice. They’re not captives. Your job is to find out why.”

With that short little instruction, my life was changed. I found tallgrass prairies and persistent ethnic neighborhoods. I found a major American regional dialect shift taking place; I found all kinds of foods I had never previously tasted. In short, I discovered that Wisconsin—and by extension the entire world—had far more treasure to it than I understood as a media-saturated adolescent.

Curiosity is no accident: it is a willingness to remain enchanted by the world, when disenchantment is the natural response. If, as Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen asserts in his small masterpiece A Philosophy of Boredom, boredom “contains a rejection of—or rather detestation of—God and his creation (p. 50),” curiosity is boredom’s inverse. Curiosity and faith are intertwined.

2. Truth Grasped

A few years later, I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, a large and worldly institution dedicated to “ever encourag[ing] that fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found” (the school’s motto). I was genuinely saddened and, well, disenchanted to discover: not all thinkers were interested in finding the truth. Many seemed more interested in critique.

Two thousand years ago a witness to the intellectual climate of Athens saw a similar situation:

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas (Acts 17:21).

To rephrase in terms of my school, they were more interested in “sifting and winnowing” than in “finding the truth.” They were dedicated to endless, rather than fearless, sifting.

Intellectual maturity, it struck me then and now, involves fearless sifting, followed by fearless grasping of what truth can be grasped. Skepticism, though useful as a tool for sifting and winnowing, can often paralyze the soul.

3. Big-Heartedness

Again a few years later, I was on staff with InterVarsity. An aging lion of the Civil Rights Movement addressed a national staff gathering, with a message of Christian humanism. Years of digging for truth had shown me the empty foundations behind humanisms of all stripes, which I confidently shared with my team during the subsequent debriefing time.

In return I received a stunning rebuke. My team leader bluntly warned me not to “become one of those people,” those critical souls so dedicated to correct doctrine that they miss truth in disguise. She went deeper:

“You have a choice to make here. Every time you choose to criticize, you risk becoming more of a critical person.”

To say that God and God’s truth are bigger than comprehension is not to succumb to cynical relativism. No: it is to balance our search for truth with a willingness to grasp it even when it comes bundled with nonsense.

If the risk of broad curiosity is seduction by untruths, the risk of unbending insistence on orthodoxy is that of becoming an unbending soul.

A Conversation about Who We’re Becoming

Okay, so what? Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish with All Things New: I want to invite you—readers—to join me in this quest. I will unearth treasures—cultural, ecological, theological, and interdisciplinary—and try to share them with you.

I want to hear your thoughtful, big-hearted opinions, and I want you to read others’. Together we might discover something important.

I read a lot of books. I cross cultures daily, in my neighborhood and through my church. I take my kids on field trips to the park. I listen to missionaries’ stories whenever I get a chance. Whenever my toe strikes something worth sharing, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if you find a treasure of your own, that you want to discuss, let me know; I’ll see what I can do.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Boomers Going Hungry in Old Age

Yours for only $291,000: The Winnebago Vectra

A new study shows what any fool could have told us: the majority of the Baby Boomer generation will outlive their savings.

In other words, we their children and grandchildren will have to pay for them.

The Baby Boomers, long ago nicknamed the "Me Generation," the people who brought us Woodstock and Yuppies, are now eligible for AARP membership. Millions of them are woefully unprepared for the challenge of old age.

Somebody will have to care for them, and that somebody will be whoever's in their prime productive years. In fact, loving elderly Boomers may well be the main thing we do with our next forty years. It will be an awesome responsibility, and an opportunity, too: we have before us the chance to reshape the history of generational relationships.

As might be expected, of course, there is a backlash growing. Among people my age (early 30s) anti-Boomer resentment is not hard to find. Boomers are accused of all range of ills, real and imaginary. They're supposedly self-absorbed. They're reckless spenders, and refuse to share leadership with younger people. "Boomer" is a four-letter word in many circles, including in sectors of the church. I've even seen a "Baby Boomer Death Counter."

Children have rebelled against their parents since the beginning of time, but the last half century has been awful: from James Dean to Eminem, youth have had progressively worse relationships with parents. But by God's grace, we can break the cycle and show the world God's love by how we love the Me Generation.

This project—Blessed Are The Uncool—is about reimagining life without the crutch of coolness. I've had the sense that life could be fuller and more colorful and more, well, alive—without our wasted efforts at cool, without our pathetic individual rebellions.

We don't have to reproduce this generational divisiveness: that's the revolutionary power of the gospel. Just as Christ broke sin's stranglehold by forgiving sinners, we can actually change world history here. In our lives, in our time, we have a shot at undoing thousands of years of sinful disrespect for the old.

Adults throughout history have taken care of their parents and children simultaneously. What sets our generation apart is that we will have more old people than children to care for. Taking care of the Baby Boomers will be the greatest moral challenge our generation faces—how we do it will be the measure of our character.

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Photo Credit: Winnebago Industries


Monday, March 31, 2008

Jesus as Che/Jesus as Hero

Jesus as Che
Originally uploaded by Paul Grant.

I was just corrected over at Flickr about my source material.

I inaccurately named Che Guevara as the source for this picture; a user from the UK pointed out the original--a well-known passion-week painting.

I do think, however, that Che Guevara or otherwise, the point of the image is to transform the popular image of Jesus from a weak and effeminate one to a hairy-chested big-man. And he certainly was! He was a carpenter for most of his life, after all!

But again, we ought to be very careful about how we sell this image, i.e. not to turn Jesus into the Barabbas everyone wanted at the time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Potter Tea Party

I love cross-cultural blunders, and this was one of the best ones I’ve seen, if for no other reason than that it involved millions of dollars.

The final Harry Potter book went on sale on Saturday, in a globally coordinated release. There was incredibly tight security around the book, so the publishers were quite upset to find the New York Times reviewing the book on Thursday.

Without threatening legal action (surely a hopeless cause), Author JK Rowling resorted to shaming the Times. And that’s where her mistake took place: comparing the NY Times leak to the Boston Tea Party.

Technically, or legally, I suppose, the Boston Tea Party (wikipedia) was an act of piracy, just as spoiling intellectual property secrets was for the Times review of an unreleased book. So Rowling was factually correct.

Her mistake, the one that sank her whole complaint, is in holding the Boston Tea Party before a group of Americans as a shameful act. Way off target: Americans are proud of the Tea Party, and comparing the Times review to the colonial rebels was the surest way to make them stand a little taller and be a little prouder. Rowling thus came off, not as an injured artist, but as a simpering, wealthy subject of the Crown.

A few months ago, as I was giving an interview about my book to a radio station in England, the host asked me if rebellion was an essential attribute of the American character, and I replied yes, although I’m not certain how strongly I hold that opinion.

But the Boston Tea Party, which really was nothing more than an urban riot, in the same moral category as Watts—Americans are proud of that riot, pretty much across the board.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sept. 11 Jokes

The Onion's recently launched video series has been very good so far. I really think what they're doing signals the end of Youtube. What I mean is, Youtube's main quality is technology, not content. Technology can be copied, but good content can't. Anyway, take a look at this fake news clip, Al Qaeda Also Fed Up With Ground Zero Construction Delays.

What is really interesting about the humor here is how it is simultaneously rude and careful. There is one joke here--the joke of double meanings about terrorists.

This is the Onion, after all, a satirical weekly, who suspended publication for a week on September 11, 2001, out of sensitivity--and started up again with a surprisingly tender series of humorous articles related to the tragedy ("God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule"; "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake").

Five years later, the Onion is a little bolder about terror humor, but is still cautious.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Old men, young men

Somebody once said that everyone who came before us is naive and everyone after us is a phony. With that in mind, I just checked out two bands - one from the olden days before me, and one from today.

Parliament's Mothership Connection is perhaps the high-water mark of seventies funk, right before disco came and swept it all aside. The album was released in 1974, and includes some songs you hear on the radio today (or in TV ads): P-Funk, and We Want the Funk.

I was really impressed with the musicianship. The drums are hot, the guitars are red-hot, and the bass steals the show. George Clinton's vocals haven't aged as well. He sounds a little corny when he says "That's the law around here. You got to wear your sunglasses."

But look past the surface, and these guys were living quite a wild life. In fact, despite the crudeness of our contemporary sexual culture (see Paris Hilton), we really aren't in the same league as the P-Funk boys. Quite sobering.

Meanwhile, while TV on the Radio is clearly following in Parliament's footsteps, along with those of U2, they're forging their own path. They aren't poseurs. I haven't enjoyed a rock band this much in quite some time. It's the singing. People don't sing like this very much anymore - as groups.

The vocals really drive the band, but the freshness of the sound can't be missed. There is a realism about the band, but without the fatalism of a lot of today's angst-ridden stuff. They come off as more mature than Parliament, even as they have equally wild hair.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Nowhereland isn't all that

Vinita, Kansas
World's Largest McDonalds
Originally uploaded by blueroot.

I'm reading a book on consumerism and place, by a geographer interested in how consumerism shapes the spacial aspects of our minds. That may sound strange, but it's really straightforward.

Look at a McDonald's restaurant along the highway, for example. When you exit and head for the golden arches, you're not in a particular place. You're not in Vinita, Oklahoma (above), for example (even if you are in real, physical terms-below). For all practical purposes, you're in the nowhereland/everywhereland of the Interstate services world.

map loading...

Anyway, the author (Robert David Sack) makes this point:

Postmodernism assumes that the consumer's world is total.
Instead of postmodernism, I would say cynicism; rephrasing Sack, I would say: The cynic assumes that the world of consumerism is the only world there is; that there is only show, and nothing authentic.

That may be a bit unfair to all the cynics out there, but hey. I played with cynicism for a while. Then I grew up.

It is my observation that the humanity of humans bubbles to the surface, and can't be dissolved, even when community is fragmented and everything is for sale. I challenge cynics out there to look a little closer, and you'll find authentic action, rooted in local place and culture, humming along.