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As a journalist-turned-professor, I have followed a path built around words and their use. How can students learn to write with precision and clarity? How can they decipher truth from falsehood in what they read and see? How can they preserve their own humanity — and that of others — in their communication practices?

In other words: How can they be real, authentic and sincere in life amid a media-generated blizzard of clever words? The same question, of course, applies to each of us every time we log on to Facebook, place a phone call, send a text, or a speak in person with someone.

“The Enemy of Clear Language”

George Orwell understood this challenge all too well, as noted in his 1946 essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language”:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

More than 65 years have passed since Orwell penned those words. Not much has changed, except for the new ways in which we can channel our insincerity. But here is the more important question: If we wish to live differently as Christians, what kind of practices might we adopt so that our words don’t just ring true — but are true?

Words and Their Care

This brings me back to a book I quoted in an earlier post, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” Much like Orwell, she is troubled by how people use words to obscure rather than illuminate. One response, she argues, resides in the practice of precision:

Truth-telling is difficult because the varieties of untruth are so many and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecision, socially acceptable slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda. … So let us reflect here on the practice of precision as a spiritual discipline that lies at the heart of truth-telling.

For McEntyre, a practice of precision embodies several traits.

First, “precision begins with defining terms.” This isn’t a matter of using the dictionary. It means we think carefully about the words we choose and how others use them as well. More important, if we wish to speak or write with precision we must have the humility to listen to others first. In other words, we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Second, “precision requires attention to process.” That is, precise communication helps ourselves and others understand how the world works. It does not obscure the uncomfortable truths, either in pubic debate, personal relationships or church life. McEntyre calls this kind of precision “strenuous and highly morally relevant.” Our credibility, as individuals and as a church, depends on it.

Third, “precision lies in understatement.” We live in an age of continual hype, and we can resort to it to promote ourselves and our faith. But when we refrain from hype we become more honest about our lives and more open to God’s true love for us. Hype is a desperate effort to impress and control, to prove that we deserve attention. Understatement, in contrast, shows respect for others and humility before God.

Responsibility and Compassion

McEntyre concludes:

Precision is … not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.

This is a key point: Precision unleavened by compassion turns even the best-intentioned words into heavy clubs. If we are to be real and authentic with one another, then we speak and write with others in mind, not just ourselves. To practice precision is to be both clear and open. Let us pray that God may help us to be both.

Note: Another version of this post also appears on my church’s blog.

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Years ago, during a sermon about money, a preacher offered this observation (which I paraphrase):

People say that money is neutral; what matters is what you do with it. But money isn’t neutral — it’s powerful. If you have it, you have choices that other people don’t have, and those choices will tug and pull at you. We should not kid ourselves about that.

That message has stayed with me through the years, and it returns every time I think of the financial collapse of 2008. In his book “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis argues that the prospects of huge, immediate profits overwhelmed all caution in the financial sector. In essence, Lewis says, people acted in a manner contrary not only to their own long-term interests, but to the interests of their clients and society. It became a sort of collective delusion, fueled by the prospects of extraordinary profits.

However, Lewis’ argument is generous when compared to that of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (see trailer), which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary. Ferguson sees in the finance industry willful greed and malevolence, not just delusion. He explores the ways in which that pursuit of money, accompanied by a sense of entitlement,  continues to taint not just Wall Street but government and (yes) university academics.

Whether you find Lewis or Ferguson more persuasive (and both are worth your time), their stories illustrate an observation from my pastor this Sunday: Money operates as an ideology from which we must be converted. When money, rather than God, becomes omnipotent in our lives, its power can distort and harm. The collapse of 2008 is but another cautionary tale of that power — a tale we still struggle to comprehend.

The consequences of 2008 persist today; they are not the abstractions of world set far from the Northwest. They continue to echo in our lives through lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and derailed hopes and dreams — even among those still fortunate enough to have homes and savings. It makes me wonder: Will my children have the same opportunities that my wife and I have enjoyed? I’m no longer sure about that.

But there’s a bigger question: Beyond those earthly worries, how can my wife and I steel our children against the pull of money and its pernicious ideology? How can we model for them a lives that are truly free? In a society rocked by financial uncertainty, perhaps one place we can begin is to put aside fear and trust in a God who will never abandon us. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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I admit it; I’m someone who likes my bookshelves organized just so, in a system that probably only I can decipher. No surprise, therefore, that this creative little video brought a smile to my face.

Nice music, courtesy of Rodrigo y Gabriella. However, because of the lords of copyright who govern music, you’ll have to click on the link to go to YouTube. It’s worth a minute of your time.

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(Updated — last paragraph recast for clarity)

Years ago Louis Menand offered this observation about the admirers of George Orwell:

Orwell’s army is one of the most ideologically mixed up ever to assemble. … Almost the only thing Orwell’s posthumous admirers have in common … is anti-Communism. But they all somehow found support for their particular bouquet of moral and political values in Orwell’s writings, which have been universally praised as “honest,” “decent,” and “clear.”

Much the same could be said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and World War II martyr whose thought was forged in much of the same refiner’s fire as that of Orwell. Eric Metaxas, author of a recent biography of Bonhoeffer, recently said in an interesting interview with Scott Horton:

Bonhoeffer was not a liberal or a conservative, but a Christian. He was zealous for God’s perspective on things, and God’s perspective is inevitably wider than the standard parochial political points of view. It sometimes forces us toward a liberal view and sometimes toward a conservative view.

But because Bonhoeffer has been so consistently portrayed as a theological liberal–which he was not–it’s important for us to see the other side, and I hope I’ve shown that in my book. He is clearly horrified at the way so many at Union Theological Seminary had cavalierly dispensed with the fundamentals of the Christian faith and had created an ersatz religion in their own progressive image. He was impressed with and moved by their earnest desire to help the poor, for example, but he wondered on what basis they called any of this “Christianity.” He found their theology shallow to the point of being almost evaporated entirely.

But he was equally alive to the dangers on the other side, the dangers of fundamentalism and pietism. He’s complicated, but in the best sense. He’s an equal opportunity theological critic.

If you read comments on Metaxas’ book at Amazon, amid overall praise you also find criticisms that Metaxas himself is recasting Bonhoeffer’s story to fit a theological/political agenda (see here for example). Perhaps it doesn’t help that Metaxas’ book has been promoted with such melodrama by a conservative publisher (see clip at the top). He’s also been embraced by conservative media; clips of his interviews with CBN and Fox News are easily found at YouTube:

In this context, it was refreshing to see Metaxas interviewed by Horton (definitely not a member of conservative media), and Metaxas drew several parallels between Bonhoeffer’s time and our own that grabbed my attention:

The question for Germans in the 1930s is the same question we face today. When do state concerns begin encroaching on the authority of the church to a point where the church needs to shout “halt”? If the church is healthy and is playing its role correctly, it will check the unbridled growth of the state and will protect its own members–and others, too–from illegitimate state power.

Metaxas’ statement here can be read several ways. Does his reference to encroaching state authority refer to the fears espoused by Tea Partiers and others that the state is negating the liberty of the free market and imposing a socialist agenda? Is he referring only to the debate over abortion, science and the definitions of human life? Or is he referring to the use of torture, extensive surveillance and abuse of the law  in order to prosecute the war on terror? Or some mixture of these issues?

How Metaxas answers those questions may offer insight about his approach to Bonhoeffer’s life. Nonetheless, his interview with Horton left me wanting to read the book, and I’ll be interested to see how he (and I ) navigate the challenge we all face when reading Bonhoeffer (and his interpreters): Are we willing to examine his work on his terms rather than our own? Are we willing to face assertions, ambiguities and complications that challenge our own assumptions? Or do we use Bonhoeffer, as others have used Orwell, to confirm our own presumptions?

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James K.A. Smith’s new book, “Letters to a Young Calvinist,” though not aimed at someone such as myself (well, at least the young part), does take me back to formative events in my journey of faith.

Back in high school, my spiritual development revolved around Young Life. There were a couple of guys, named Mike and Tom, who graduated a year or two earlier and took off for college — Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., to be specific. A fateful choice.

During term breaks they returned home determined to meet with those of us still in high school. They shared “discoveries” that made everything about the Christian faith fall into place. In short, it was TULIP, otherwise known as the Five Points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistable Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.

Their enthusiasm was boundless, and they spent hours schooling us in these doctrines of the Reformed tradition. It felt like we were being offered membership in an exclusive club of believers who really “got it.”

Add to that equation a new Young Life leader. He would invite me and a few others to drive over to Ligonier, Pa., to what was then known as the Ligonier Valley Study Center, run by R.C. Sproul. There the inculcation into the Reformed tradition deepened, aided by the then-novel distribution of cassette tapes for listening at home. 

As a high school kid, I was grateful for the kind of adult attention my Young Life leader supplied — I remain so today. But as I got to know him more closely, I also saw a great deal of anger. He told me that Fuller Seminary was going to hell in a handbasket in a dispute over the inerrancy of Scripture. (Hey, I hadn’t even heard of Fuller.)

He also questioned whether those “Arminians” were even Christians at all because they didn’t buy into TULIP. He introduced me to Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann as enemies, to neo-orthodoxy as a fraud. And he drew from the work of Bill Gothard for teachings at Young Life meetings; I remember my friends Mike and Tom going off to Basic Youth Conflicts workshops. On the instructions of Gothard, they said, the teaching materials had to be treated as exclusive property, which one could not see or fully grasp unless you attended those workshops in their entirety. (A great way, coincidentally, to protect proprietary interests.)

Essentially, my Young Life leader seemed like he was at war with the world. I tended to look past that because he was so kind to me, but this undercurrent of conflict was always present. It was accentuated when I visited Ligonier; no matter that the time was intellectually stimulating, I felt little in terms of love or warmth, and that sense nagged at me. But these were serious people with serious business, carrying the mantle of true faith against liberal theology.

Eventually, I also got to look through the written materials of Basic Youth Conflicts (early 1970’s edition) on the sly before my freshman year at Penn State. This same adversarial vibe permeated these texts. Moreover, when I looked up Bible citations used to support the teachings, the connection between the verses and the teachings were, to be kind, cryptic. At the time, I figured, I just wasn’t smart enough to get it. Now, I realize there was nothing to “get”; the connections didn’t make sense because, um, they didn’t make sense.

Where does this leave me now?

As someone anchored in the Reformed tradition, I remain grateful for the spiritual journey triggered by these experiences. At the same time, as someone by temperament who leans toward what I’d call “terminal seriousness,” I came to understand that this expression of the Reformed tradition wasn’t — and isn’t — healthy. It feeds too much the tendency to view others with suspicion: Are you on my side or not?

This is what happens when ideological/theological litmus tests trump grace, allowing our own confidence in God to, in fact, limit how God can be at work in the world. It is a failure of vision fed by pride.

And that brings me back to James K.A. Smith’s book. Almost immediately, Smith turns his attention to this form of spiritual pride, which he likens to a “theological West Nile virus.” He draws from his own journey as a Pentecostal who embraced the Reformed tradition, thrilled by his discovery but now aware of its intoxicating tendency toward arrogance. He warns:

If you don’t recognize the temptations of hubris early, the infection of religious pride soon spreads, and you’ll find that Reformed theology is reduced to polemics — and the worst kind of polemics: directed only at other Christians.

Though this kind of pride is hardly limited to Calvinists, I am thankful to see Smith place this warning at the start of this light, breezy and humble book. It reaffirms what the Reformed tradition has to offer while offering an appropriate cautionary note — with a much-needed warm heart.

As I read “Letters to a Young Calvinist” I also am reminded of God’s sense of humor, considering that now I teach at a Wesleyan school. Calvinists may have their five points, but Wesleyans have their Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience), and I’ve also grown from my more intensive exposure to that strain of faith.

No matter the tradition, all of us who embrace Christianity face choices not only in what we believe but also how we believe. It is a test: How do I treat others with whom I differ? To what degree does grace manifest itself in those spaces between believers?

To what degree do we yield to the “temptations of hubris?”

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The first slap to my head about the reality of teenagers living on the streets came through a mid-1980’s documentary called “Streetwise,” which grabbed my interest in part because it told the story of homeless kids in Seattle.

Like all too many people, although I had seen homeless teens during my visits to Seattle’s University District, they had remained largely invisible to me. “Streetwise” opened my eyes. The work of New Horizons, a Christian ministry to street kids, later solidified my understanding.

Now, Ron Ruthruff, who spent 25 years working with kids as a staff member at New Horizons, has written a book exploring the lessons he’s learned from those he served on Seattle’s streets — “The Least of These.” The book is a potent, heartfelt mix of exposition, memoir and personal reflection.

Ruthruff shines a clear light on the desperate lives of street kids while reckoning with all the complex circumstances that drive them there. His sense of heartbreak and love animates each word, but he never veers into maudlin sentimentality or simplistic solutions — he knows that the kids deserve better.

When I reflect on “Streetwise” and Ruthruff’s book, I am humbled by how little the circumstances of street life have changed, if at all, in the 25 years since I saw the film. The majority of kids who live on the streets are fleeing desperate circumstances in their own homes, and they scratch for survival through prostitution and drugs while still forming their own small communities of support.

Likewise, organizations like New Horizons also remain on the streets working with kids who, in society’s eyes, have already been left for dead — and many never make it to the age of 30. New Horizons’ work requires a steady presence of staff and volunteers over time; an incarnational approach at its core. That’s why one young man told a New Horizons staff member, “Thanks for showing me love with skin on it.”

Ruthruff’s book is filled with accounts of those he has met along the way, stories of both joy and sadness. For too many of those who live on the street, there is no Hollywood happy ending, and Ruthruff notes that in one year staff members of New Horizons attended funerals for 15 kids.

Yet even when Ruthruff feels despair closing in, he holds fast to hope — even in the case of young man named Danny, who died days after a heroin overdose in a Seattle bathhouse. Ruthruff writes of Danny:

It is the greatest of ironies. It is in the filth, the shame, the abandonment — that Christ can be found and hope is realized.

Don’t turn away. Look at the boy. A boy forsaken. There you will see our Lord, forsaken for the boy. Forsaken with the boy.

If you want to learn more about the lives of homeless kids, Ruthruff’s “The Least of These” is good place to start. And if you need a refresher, his stories are a powerful reminder — not just of the great need, but also of the great power of God’s love to find those who we overlook each day.

(Full Disclosure: My wife at I are longtime supporters of New Horizons. If you wish to learn more, visit their web site.)

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It’s one of the great perks for working at a university: when a guest speaker arrives on campus who challenges our thinking, encourages our hearts and inspires our imaginations. That was the case recently when John Paul Lederach visited campus to discuss his work in peace and reconciliation.

Lederach is Professor of International Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He spoke of the enormous challenges that peace workers face in nations such as Colombia and Sierra Leone, leavened with moments of hope. He reminded the audience that reconciliation is not an event but a process, one that requires commitment over time:

We have a God-given gift to remember the past, but no God-given power to change it. We have the God-given gift to imagine a future, but no God-given gift to control it.”

To do the work of peace, Lederach says, one must have “feet on the ground, head in the clouds.”

By “feet on the ground,” he means that there’s no dodging the stark realities of broken relationships, political strife, and bloodshed that tear at nations — and most violence takes place within nations, not between nations. So one must know and understand each situation on its own terms; no attempt at peacemaking has a prayer otherwise.

By “head in clouds,” Lederach means that peacemaking requires a moral imagination: to envision actions that break from entrenched patterns of conflict and create opportunities that otherwise could not be seen. Or, as Lederach states in his book by the same name, the moral imagination is “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”  

Though he did not refer to the moral imagination as a spiritual discipline, what he described struck me as requiring one’s spiritual resources just as much as intellectual resources.

For example, peacemaking requires that one meet the challenge of the enemy — “to imagine a web of relationships that includes your enemy.”  And the challenge of truth — “a refusal to enter into a simple, dualistic set of choices.”  There’s the challenge of fear — “to be willing to step into the unknown” without knowing what the outcome might be.

And finally, there’s the challenge of grace — the “birthing of something that hadn’t existed before.”

It can be hard enough to practice all that in our daily relationships, much less the endless conflicts that have claimed so many lives around the world. But as a starting point, what a difference such an imagination would make if we really did bring it to bear on our lives. Change always must start somewhere. As Lederach said:

Reconciliation does not mean forgive and forget. It means remember and change.

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