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Archive for December, 2011

Joe Nocera of The New York Times says yes:

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.

However, to characterize Glass’s actions as a “big mistake” seems a bit too generous for acts of deliberate and repeated deception in which Glass fabricated, in whole or in part, dozens of articles during the mid-1990’s — mostly for the New Republic. Glass’s fraud was first exposed in 1998 by Forbes journalist Adam Penenberg; explored in more detail by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair; chronicled in “Shattered Glass,” a nice little film (see trailer at top of this post); and re-examined this week by The San Francisco Chronicle in a front-page story.

Glass, who received a law degree from Georgetown University in 2000, is now the object for renewed media attention because he is in a court battle over admission to the California bar. Though he passed the state bar exam years ago, he has been denied entry because of his past. Glass has challenged this ruling, and both the State Bar Court of California and the California Court of Appeals have ruled in his favor. Now, the state bar has appealed to the California Supreme Court, which recently accepted the case.

Media critic Jack Shafer has examined the recently unsealed court files from the Glass case, and he is far more skeptical about Glass’s rehabilitation than Nocera. On one side you have the testimony of more than 20 people regarding Glass’s exemplary post-scandal behavior. On the other side the California State Committee of Bar Examiners asserts that Glass has dissembled about the scope of his fabrication even as he sought to join the legal guild, first unsuccessfully in New York and now in California. Shafer writes:

Insisting that Glass has never rehabilitated himself in a manner that would make him fit to practice law, the Committee of Bar Examiners dissects his behavior since 1998 in the pleadings. It accuses Glass of misleading the New York Bar in 2003 during the admittance process.

Glass stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in all of [his] stories, so they could publish clarifications.” This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by ‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.” The committee found this Glass explanation “disingenuous.”

The California bar also notes that Glass low-balled the number of fabricated articles in his New York bar application and then offered a larger estimate in his California application. It also noted that Glass profited from the scandal through the publication of the novel “The Fabulist,” for which he received a $190,000 advance. (As Shafer notes, the novel bombed; fewer than 5,000 out of 75,000 copies were sold.) Shafer quotes the bar committee:

The concept of Applicant profiting from his wrongdoing appears inconsistent with the notion of moral rehabilitation. Applicant could have, and the Committee believes should have, used the money to correct his wrongs, to pay back the victims of his lies, or to fund charitable programs benefiting the journalism profession, which he damaged so greatly.

But what really rankles Shafer is the effort by Glass to blame overly demanding parents for the pattern of deception in his early life, something first noted in Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile and a more recent story posted at CNN. Shafer concludes:

Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest—as you might have guessed, I’m not—the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar?

The key word in Shafer’s critique is “excuse”; he does not see in Glass a clear acceptance of responsibility. Yet Nocera says of Shafer’s conclusion: “To my mind, that’s a serious misreading of the testimony, in which Glass seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did.” However, if you read the 160-plus comments to Nocera’s column, his readers overwhelmingly side with Shafer’s skepticism.

In Nocera’s column and the CNN profile, there’s no doubt about the sincerity of supporters for Glass; many have extended grace to him in remarkable and commendable ways. But the California bar’s concerns over how Glass has hedged about his past raise reasonable doubts because they echo his past tendency to cover one half-truth with another, and to do so in such a convincing manner that he could persuade even his greatest doubters.

The testimonials on behalf of Glass also echo another key observation by Bissinger, that Glass’s “nonstop yearning to please” others appeared to be “indisputably genuine.” It is difficult not to see suggestions of this trait in examples offered by those who support Glass. As Nocera notes:

People who know him tell me that he is “relentlessly honest.” Having once been a pathological liar, he now won’t tell even the tiniest of white lies.

This kind of comment sets off an alarm because, as Bissinger observed, Glass’s “eager-to-please” sincerity was central to his ability to cover his real conduct and true identity. The depth of his calculation was staggering, and this is why Nocera errs in characterizing Glass’s conduct as a mistake. We all makes mistakes, often in the form of innocent errors; this cannot be said of Glass. 

So we are left with this question: Is it ever possible for anyone to know who Stephen Glass really is? That’s exactly the question raised by the California bar.

Glass’s case raises perpetual questions about the nature of forgiveness. It is one thing to forgive Stephen Glass; it is another to give him the trust that comes with a license to practice law. One does not automatically lead to the other, as much as we love stories of redemption. In this case, I find myself torn. I do not wish ill upon Stephen Glass — and I want to avoid the cheap contempt of scorn offered from afar. But I cannot yet join Nocera in shaking off the doubts about Stephen Glass — though I’d love to be proved wrong.

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If you were a Calvin and Hobbes fan, you’ll appreciate this recent Christmas tribute to its creator, Bill Watterson.

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My memories of Christmas Eve all go back to a sensation, a tingling sense of anticipation, about what was to come the next morning. It always seemed to make sleep impossible and the night never-ending.

And that was just about the presents.

Beyond the gifts, my family wasn’t particularly observant about the baby Jesus, who was treated as a nice story that lingered in the background while the wrapping paper flew about the living room. And Advent? Well, that was a word I never heard at home, and I was never particularly attentive to it in my early days as a Christian.

Then I got married – to a preacher’s kid from hardy Lutheran stock and a family that lived by the church seasons. Particularly Advent.

For my wife, Christmas would be amiss without Advent, and she challenged me to make that season a real part of my Christmas.

And then our children arrived, along with the Advent calendar. For 16 years now, the nightly ritual has been the same, with each of our children taking turns reading each of the booklets about baby Jesus. And if mom and dad somehow forgot to read one night, they were the ones who set us straight. They loved, and still love, to read the stories. 

Yes, they still anticipate the presents that will arrive Christmas day. But their anticipation is different from that of my youth, shaped by those little booklets that remind us that the story of Jesus’ arrival on Earth is the transformative moment in human history. That is why Advent, this time of anticipation, this time for hope amid the darkness, carries so much more for me than I ever felt as a child.

Thanks to my wife and children for teaching me this lesson. Thanks to God for the gift of His Son, and the redemption of our lives.

May God bless you all this Christmas.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s blog, Calvin Voices.

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Earlier this fall, at the behest of my daughter, I joined her for a concert by the David Crowder Band and three other Christian artists. Crowder was good, but the other artists really caught my attention – particularly an eclectic group called Gungor. 

Michael and Lisa Gungor played a mix of guitar, bass drum, keyboards and other odd instruments – accompanied by a cellist who also was a mean beat-boxer. Their 30-minute set concluded with their signature tune, “Beautiful Things.” It’s a simple song with a simple message:

All this pain

I wonder if I’ll ever find my way

I wonder if my life could really change at all

All this earth

Could all that is lost ever be found?

Could a garden come up from this ground at all?

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of the dust

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of us

It’s not just the simple truth of the song that resonated in the Moore Theater that night. Gungor built on that chorus, repeating and reshaping it, building it in intensity and carrying all of us along in a beautiful moment of worship. Even this listener, often critical of Christian music, could not resist.

When Gungor finished, they walked off the stage to a huge ovation. Singer Chris August then walked onstage with his acoustic guitar and stood at the microphone as the cheers finally calmed. He smiled and said, “See what I have to follow every night?” We all understood.

Though we often feel far from beautiful, we remain God’s handiwork, a beautiful creation made in God’s image. However far we may feel at times from our Creator, God’s mark on our lives persists nonetheless. God has made a beautiful thing out of dust, and out of us.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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Tossed About

U2 is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Achtung Baby. When I first heard the album in 1991 it hit like a freight train, a jumble of new sounds and emotions that broke with all that U2 had created previously. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but now I see it as their greatest work (feel free to argue, Joshua Tree fans).

What sustains my interest is that, once you strip away the silly title and all the artifice, this is U2’s most human album, born of deep conflict that nearly ended the band. More than that, it is an album that mines the theme of contradictions, the gaps between our aspirations and our actions, the kinds that the members of U2 felt at that time – and the kinds that we tend to carry as we reach for God’s glory and stumble short of the mark.

In one song, “Acrobat,” U2’s Bono sings:

And I’d join the movement

If there was one I could believe in

Yeah I’d break bread and wine

If there was a church I could receive in

’Cos I need it now

To take the Cup

To fill it up

To drink it slow

I can’t let you go

I must be an acrobat

To talk like this

And act like that 

I appreciate this song because of its honesty and longing, expressed in real and concrete terms rather than abstract spiritual platitudes. Right here, Bono joins us in that space between the already and the not yet, the place where grace resides, the place where we live in anticipation of the completion of God’s work in us.

This is an honest place – where we can glimpse God’s light amid our own contradictions, where we can find comfort and transformation in the hands of a God whose grasp is always steady. We may act like acrobats, but God is the net beneath us – always ready to catch us.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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Recently, I heard a theology student from Zimbabwe share a story from her childhood school days.

One day her teacher was thrilled to inform the class of a new history book – a book on African history, their history. It would be expensive, and everyone would need to contribute in order to obtain it. But despite the cost the students gladly scraped together the funds. They had never had a chance to read such a book, and they hungered to hear their own story.

However, a few days later the teacher returned to class filled with sorrow. They would not be able to purchase the book. The school authorities determined that the book would be of no use for the students as they prepared for their eventual general exams. The reason: The exams only dealt with European history. Academically, therefore, African history had no value. So the class returned to its standard textbook on European history. Their own stories would have to wait for another time.

This account would be no surprise to theologian Emmanuel Katongole, who has asserted that European colonizers treated Africa as if it had no history. His recent book, “The Sacrifice of Africa,” is a devastating reflection on the lingering effects of colonization — and the loss of story — on the African continent.

In the case of this theology student, her account bears witness to what it means to grow up without a story to call her own. Stories tell us of our origins; they explain our life as it is now; and they fire our imagination about the future. To be left without a story is to be cut off from our roots, to feel displaced in the present, and to be left in doubt about our days to come.

We are blessed to know a God who has given us a story, who has acted in history before, during and after the arrival of the baby Jesus, our Lord incarnate. Moreover, we know a God who recognizes the stories in all of our lives – the joys, the heartbreaks, the hopes, the fears. We are all valued.

To know that we are all part of God’s story is a great comfort; it also suggests a responsibility. To what degree do we follow God’s example? To what degree do we open our lives to the stories of others in our midst? How many among us have a story to tell – but with no one to listen? How many opportunities to listen have I dared to miss? More than I can count, I’m afraid to say.

Advent is a season of waiting, of anticipation for light in the darkness. As we wait, may we rest in the comfort of God’s story – and may we open our eyes, ears and hearts to the stories of others, so that the grace given to us may be shared freely among all.

Note: A version of this post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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This blog has been quiet since summer, something I didn’t intend at the time, but the past few months became something of an enforced sabbatical from posting. By enforced, I mean the priorities of work this fall left little room for blogging.

Of course, when you are a professor many of those demands from work are self-imposed: In this case, in addition to my regular teaching load I also resumed the role of student and enrolled in a theology class in the graduate program at SPU’s School of Theology. The course explored theological ethics, the doctrine of the Trinity and environmental issues. And yes, those themes all fit together quite nicely. It also meant reading six books in 10 weeks, writing assignments, papers and a take-home final exam. As my wife said to me at the outset, “So, you’re not busy enough already?” As always, she was right.

So, if something had to go, it was blogging — for at least a time. Through the fall, I’ve been stockpiling ideas and thoughts for posts, and I hope to be rolling them out in the weeks to come. I will be cautious not to promise too much this time as I try to re-establish my routine. But I do want to say thanks so much to those of you who have visited the blog during this quiet time — I expected the traffic to drop to zero and that hasn’t been the case. I don’t ever want to take it for granted when people take a few minutes to look at a little blog such as this, so I’m grateful for the readership.

I’ll start with a few posts that I was asked to contribute, beginning today, to my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices. Today’s post reflects on a moment from my theology class — it felt like an appropriate place to start. After Christmas, I’ll start working on those items that have been piling up throughout the fall. 

Once again, thanks for visiting.

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