Books, California, Church, Contemp Culture, Equipping, Future, Global, Meaning, Peacemaking, Quotes, Race, Ramblings, Reading Reflections

The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 1)

A group of us at Open Door are moving through a Circle focused on the black-white race divide in the East Bay.

One of the resources offered to provoke thought and conversation is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. As I read through it, I’ll be posting some of the thoughts, quotes, and questions I encounter.

First, some foundational terminology:

Jim Crow: Historically, the series of laws and policies allegedly implemented to maintain social and economic order (“separate but equal”) in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Undercaste: “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13)

Racial caste system: “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12)

Mass incarceration: – Broader than our physical prison system, Alexander talks about mass incarceration as encompassing the “larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13).

And some quotes from the Introduction and Chapter 1:

“The plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” (13)

“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (53)

“Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order – this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s – a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century…banished to a political and social space not unlike jim Crow… The mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.” (56-57)

A few thoughts:

Though Alexander harshly criticizes Republican policies (driven to extremities by the rhetoric and posturing of campaign politics), she also labels Clinton as “more than any other president” responsible for creating “the current racial undercaste” (56).

This book is not playing the game of partisan politics/ideology so much as critiquing the entire enterprise of empire as it’s played out throughout American history. It’s a pretty scathing assessment and I’m unsure (and eager to see) how Alexander proposes solutions and steps forward in the midst of a system that is seemingly being described as irreparably broken.

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?

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Brokenhearted Theology, Meaning, Quotes, Ramblings, Resurrection, Spirit, The Saints

There Are No Lakes Till Eternity (On Reading Rilke)

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most
intimate. From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity. Here,
falling is best. To fall from the mastered emotion
into the guessed-at, and onward.

Rainer Maria Rilke, To Hölderlin

Poetry lends itself to reading between the lines and finding meaning that may or may not have been intended by the author. This is true of poetry in general but certainly and particularly true of Rilke.

Rilke wrote in the language of German and the language of a mystic, neither of which is my native tongue. So when I read his works they are translated once by a scholar from German mysticism into English mysticism and then a second time as I translate Rilke’s mysticism into some grain of truth or beauty that I am capable of comprehending and wielding.

The nature of this dual-translation is such that I’m never sure if what I find true and beautiful is actually Rilke or something that emerges in the long journey from Rilke’s written words through the translator’s pen to my mind. Or both?

But I’ve been dwelling all day on the above-quoted section and find in it a deep truth of the human condition. Despite our deepest desires for safety and shelter, life rarely permits us to linger. Even when we find ourselves in a moment of fullness – saturated with meaning and emotion and love and beauty – it is fleeting, and then only an image of fullness rather than true fullness, which does not exist on this side of eternity.

To live is to fall into the guessed-at, and onward.

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Some Crazy Things About The Brain (And How We Learn)

I’m reading a fascinating book about memory and brain science – How We Learn (Random House, 2014) by Benedict Carey. A science journalist for the New York Times, Carey takes all kinds of scientific research and psychological studies, smashing them together as he asks the question of how (best) our brains work throughout the learning process. As it turns out, the brain is pretty fascinating.

Carey writes that:

[The brain] registers far more than we’re conscious of and often adds previously unnoticed details when revisiting a memory or learned fact…It has a strong preference for meaning over randomness, and finds nonsense offensive…If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one.

Some crazy things about the brain and memory:

Forgetting is good. Carey quotes UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork saying “forgetting is a friend to learning.” Or, when we re-collect our memories, our brain allows us to filter out (“forget”) those things we don’t need so we can more easily find those things we do need. Later, Carey says that “forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills.”

Memories don’t disappear. They decay and distance themselves from retrieval. According to Carey, we don’t really forget anything; those memories just get woven and buried in a series and systems full of other memories. They may be irretrievable (or, more properly, very difficult to retrieve) but they’re there, somewhere.

The brain has endless storage space. There’s plenty of room in our brains. Enough, Carey says, “to record every second of a long life, cradle to grave.”

Memory involves both retrieval and storage. Some memories are high in retrieval strength (it’s easy to remember quickly) and others are high in storage strength (you won’t forget this. It’s packed nice and neat and you always know where it is). The stronger memories are high in retrieval and storage. The worst are low in both, but most are somewhere in between.

Memorize for 1/3 and rehearse for 2/3. The best studies show that knowledge is most deeply engrained and retrievable (for a test or performance or speech) when you spend 33% of your time with rote memorization and the rest rehearsing and practicing what you studied. Recite it, write it out, dance through your program. Just don’t sit and look at the book all day.

Oh, and memorize in different rooms with different background noises at different times with different people around. All those distractions will double up the pairings and connections made by your brain and will increase retrievability of those names, dates, and facts.

Fascinating book, encourage you to check it out.

Even more fascinating brains we have, encourage you to use yours well.

The above quotes are from a pre-publication copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

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Listening to and Learning from Eugene Peterson

I was raised with a skepticism toward Eugene Peterson.

How dare he turn Bible translation into a one-man show?

“The Message” isn’t a Bible or a translation. It’s “Eugene’s Happy Thoughts.”

This is not the stuff of serious, God-honoring Christianity.

When I found out that he was well-studied in biblical languages, that he penned The Message not for the world but as a contextual exercise in caring for his local congregation, that his writing is a deep, deep well of wisdom pointing the way to Jesus, I got over that skepticism.

And then it was that I just didn’t have time. He had written a lot of books (not just The Message). They all looked good. But when to read them?

Preparing to move, I sorted through all my books and found a few boxes I was ready to part with. I took them to Archives, the local theological bookstore, and watched them quickly flip through most of the pile, with a few cringes and chuckles. There were a few with some resale value so I traded those two boxes for store credit, enough to purchase a small stack of books to start the next leg of my journey.

peterson-squareGift card in hand, I jokingly asked where the Eugene Peterson section was. While he didn’t quite have his own section, there were nearly two full shelves devoted to his work. I browsed, checked which ones were available in used-but-clean condition, and grabbed a stack of five.

The Contemplative Pastor. Yes, this will be helpful.

Praying with the PsalmsI don’t love the Psalms but Greg is constantly carrying this book around. I should probably try that too. 

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral WorkKurt said I had to read this one. I should read this one. 

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Integrity, yes, that’s key.

Subversive SpiritualityYes, I sometimes pretend subversive is my middle name.

So far I’ve made it through the first of the list, with a bit of time spent in the second. Embarking on this next context of vocational calling, Peterson’s words have been life-giving and challenging. I’ve underlined, highlighted, and annotated much throughout the book, but particularly appreciated these whistleblowing lines from Peterson on prayer and the vocation of pastor.

Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.

And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally quite good at.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

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Maps, Moons, Illusions and the Integrated Life

I’ve been paging through What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution by Lawrence Lipking, a literature/humanities professor at Northwestern. The book’s big idea is that the Scientific Revolution was only possible because of a synergy of imagination between science, poetry, observation and the arts. Galileo was not simply what we would, today, call a “scientist;” Yes, he looked at the stars through a telescope, but he also painted and sketched, he wrote prose, poetry, and essays, he manufactured and created.

Lipking notes that contemporaries of Galileo looked through similar telescopes at the same moon and made similar observations about the moon’s surface, yet because of Galileo’s unique perspective and artistic imagination, he was able to assemble his observations in such a way that radically affected the cosmological understanding of his day and shifted the course of scientific discovery.

This key moment of intellectual progress was brought about by a beautiful integration of science and art and imagination. 

I love it and have been chewing on this all week. There are all kinds of implications here for how we shift from disintegration and compartmentalization to a holistic and integrated perspective on life and the world around us.

Here’s a few quotes from What Galileo Saw (Cornell Press, 2014) that got my attention and have stuck with me.

“Eventually the story of a war between imagination and science became so powerful that it divided the world.”

“Again and again the work of scientists has resulted in new ways of imaging life and the world. This process is not an abnegation of science but part of science itself.”

“To see things is to change them.”

“The history of the arts keeps pace with technical advances: the laws of perspective, the camera obscura, photography, film stock, computer imaging. In this respect, one might argue that in practice science continually joins with art to reenchant the world.

“A map is not, nor is it intended to be, the thing it represents. Instead of an illusion of reality, it offers a scheme of relations, in which the often muddled shapes and vistas that meet the eye resolve into intelligible and clearly distinguished marks and points.

The above quotes are from a pre-publication copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

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The God Who is Altogether Different

Way back when, in the days of patriarchs when cities were a novel idea, gods were said to roam throughout a city – their city – providing resources and protection in exchange for devotion, loyalty, and sacrifice. Move past the city walls, however, and your chances of being heard by your city’s god quickly decreased. Like a wireless speaker or walkie-talkie, everything’s dandy until you move out of range. The signal weakens and distortion creeps in until there’s no reception – just white noise.

So you pick a spot (thereby picking a god), set up camp and stay put.

And if you had to leave and venture out to another city, you hoped to (your) god you wouldn’t run into (their) god lest you face the wrath of (some) god.

I imagine that this notion of a place-restricted god – a localized deity –  shaped what those early listeners heard in the words of the first chapters of Genesis.

The story begins with a god carefully crafting a beautiful garden in which to dwell. A plush and pleasing home for any deity, made particularly good after the garden is populated with creatures formed from the very dirt they were created to care for. In the cool of the day, as the story goes, the god would walk alongside the creatures (no doubt, the reader thinks, in order to remind them of the rules they were to follow and the chores they were to accomplish and how lucky they were to live in such a garden under the care of such a god).

“Adam and Eve” by Marc Chagall (1912)

Despite these daily reminder-walks, the creatures rebel. They cross the creator of this garden by disobeying a specific and clear directive. Surely, the reader thinks, surely after such an act, these creatures – these mud slaves – will cease to be in relationship with this god. Surely they’d be lucky to even survive such an act of defiance.

As would be expected, their disobedience does upset the garden-god and they are kicked out of the paradise-place.

The reader chuckles.
Serves them right
.
That’s what you get when you piss off your god.
With no god to protect you now, you’d be better off dead.

But we keep reading, and we are surprised.

Yes, the dust creatures are kicked out of the garden. But the god they crossed offers them gifts of grace – animal skins fashioned into clothing. Warmth and protection from the elements, a covering for their shame. The God of the Garden chooses not to abandon this ongoing creation-development project that launched with so much promise.

The God of the Garden leaves that paradise-place, pursuing the creatures – the family fashioned from the earth by wholly muddy hands – into the rugged wilderness.

You’ve disrupted the design, but I will design a fresh start for you.
You’ve stepped off the garden path but I will prepare a new path.
You’ve walked your own way, but I will walk that way with you.

This is not what gods are supposed to do.
This is not a short-range god of limited coverage and localized concern.
This is not a quick-tempered god shallowly appeased.

This is a god who is altogether different.

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What To Do When the World is Crumbling Around You

Following up on a recent conversation, I wrote an article where I swirled up some thoughts on zombies, Cormac McCarthy, ethics and the book of Revelation.

In light of recent world events – the immigration crisis, the war zone in Gaza, etc. – I’ve been asking myself this question again and again:

When the world is crumbling around you, how will you choose to live? 

Here’s a few teaser paragraphs from the piece I write – Zombie Apocalypse and the Perseverance of Ethics – with the rest posted as part of The Antioch Session on my friend Zach’s Patheos blog.

Living in Los Angeles, a common fear is that “The Big One” could strike at any moment. In Southern California, “The Big One” is shorthand for a massive earthquake that would (will?) devastate our cities and our life together. In addition to earthquakes, our proximity to Hollywood means we like to write, create, watch, and talk about the Zombie Apocalypse that could (will?) wreak havoc on life as we know it.

Whether Zombie Apocalypse, a global climate crisis, “The Big One,” economic collapse, or a combination of all four, end of the world scenarios are popular fodder for movies, books, television shows, internet conspiracies, and lunchtime conversations.

I was recently in such a conversation where bunker hideouts, resource stashes, and escape plans were discussed. (We were talking specifically about global collapse as a result of climate change, not Zombie Apocalypse (though I do not deny those things could be linked).) Some creative and elaborate ideas were suggested involving desert meetup spots, secret permaculture gardens, and tips and tricks for living off (what’s left of) the land.

What surprises me most, when having or overhearing conversations about apocalyptic scenarios, is how many people would abandon the ethical principles they proclaim in times of peace – pursuit of the common good, love of neighbor – to instead chase after survival for “them and theirs.”

Read the rest over at The Nuance.

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