my final post on Conversant Life

It’s time to move on.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been writing for Conversant Life for two years. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously,  and I’m deeply grateful for the many people who have engaged my writing with a patient and steadfast grace. I think I’ve grown as a person, and I owe a steep debt to the Conversant Life community. 

But lately I’ve been getting restless. Admittedly, that’s my nature. I’ve never been a good maintainer; I’m better at growing things and moving along. And I’ve been wanted to write on some issues that are beyond the normal range for Conversant Life, so I’ve been considering a new space. After some sorting, I decided to move to a new site,

I want to say thanks again to Stan Jenz and the Conversant Life team for encouraging and facilitating my work.

Stereotypes For Thanksgiving

I find stereotypes very convenient. They’re just so handy when an SUV with NJ plates cuts me off in traffic, and I can instantly assign the driver’s rudeness to a function of their geographic origin. Sometimes my stereotypes are kind of knee-jerk reactions, like when I’m driving. At other times they simmer quietly, like when I see a local southern guy at church wearing a pink oxford, a brass-buttoned blue blazer, and a bow tie. 

I’m not sure that negative stereotypes can exist without the opposite, more accurate positive narratives to be true. As I pedal my Trek to work, I can believe/expect/assume most people are not going to run red lights, but will stop carefully and let me cross the street intact. When the Jersey boy in the white Nissan blows past, I apply the stereotype because he stands out; he’s the exception to the rule. It’s the greater positive reality that allows the lesser, negative stereotype to exist. Negative stereotypes are created in response to a small few, but such generalizations slake our cynical thirst to categorize and simplify.

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States of Democracy

Perhaps Architect Frank Gehry’s most famous building stands in Bilbao, Spain. His design is framed with steel and sheaved in titanium. This sculpture, created to display art, opened in 1997 to immediate acclaim. Gehry responded to all the noise by noting, “I do think architecture is a profession that deserves to have its masterpieces and occasionally somebody manages to eke one out. Not everybody can do it and, God knows, I didn’t know I could.”

Bilbao lies at the heart of the Basque region of Spain, an area long torn by the terrorism of Basque separatists. Gehry has discussed his design as an attempt to represent the idea of “democracy.” He created a building that appears to be breaking apart; fitful pieces slide askew, yet remain together, fixed in space. The sheets of titanium reflect the sun above and the water below; a shifting façade responsive to rippling water and clouds sliding by.

The State of Race

Last week I watched a peculiar parade. I saw police arranging long, white barricades at the end of my block, so my dog and I decided to take a walk and find out what was happening. From beyond the crest of a hill on Sumter Street, we could feel the roll of bass drums and hear the staccato brass of a marching band.  In a moment, floats appeared over the horizon, candy was tossed, and there were smiles all around.

But that’s not why it was a peculiar parade. Two things were odd: as I looked around, I realized that I was the only white person standing among the crowds on the sidewalk. Hmmm. The second thing: no white people in the parade. It went on, an hour of high school marching bands (8), floats (20), politicians (close to election day), and little girls in leotards (countless) twirling chrome batons with scuffed rubber tips.

Why I'll Vote on Tuesday

I have to admit it. I’ve been totally grossed out by the political chaos that has flooded the United States this fall. I stopped watching the Daily Show, gave up on reading New York Times editorials, and ignored big speeches by our President.

But last week, my wife and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the American Congress. If you have not seen it, the film takes you on a two hour trip from the very beginning of the American Government until the mid ‘80s. Frankly, it’s a frightening journey. The Revolution, the Civil War,Civil Rights, the Bosses from the industrial revolution. Such a peril filled fight from the very beginning.

But somehow, hearing Woodrow Wilson say “the government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests.

Forsaking Eden

It’s a perfect October day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Bright fall sunshine, with just enough southern heat to warm the chilly air as the northern hemisphere tips back from the sun. 100 degrees and sultry is a dim memory, as Confederate weather is redeemed by the fall.

It’s a day to be spent outside, which happily reminds me of both my own mortality and my eternity. Seasons piercingly pronounce the shortness of my own life, but the bright green still clinging to my mother-in-law’s lawn speaks of vitality and the stubbornness of life in creation.

I sat outside reading a new (to me) philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. A prodigy from Iran, he was the first Iranian to graduate from MIT, completing a degree in physics in 1954. He went on to Harvard (like most prodigies!) and finished his PhD at the ripe old age of 25. His dissertation reflected a shift from physics to philosophy. Perhaps he moved from the particulars to the universals as he observed the vivid dilemma of contemporary American society.  

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Why Christians are Angry with Islam

Ticia and I live in the center of Columbia SC, what a Re-Max realtor might call a “developing area.” You know, “those buildings are boarded up now, but I hear there’s a Pop Eye’s Chicken coming!” Lots of homeless people standing quietly on our block all day; the Rescue Mission kicks them out at 7am. And, in keeping with the “Developing Locale!” theme, there are two competing Loan businesses on the first floor of our building, both offering quick cash with no credit check. “Just give us your car’s title papers, we’ll work out the details later.”

Ticia and I have a hard time with these loan places. They further poverty by offering a quick fix at great expense. Sure, you have cash in your pocket, but in reality, you just bought a very costly distraction.

I have to admit, the loan guys are smart. We all like to live this way, and they know it. There is something intrinsically human about focusing on the immediate and evident in order to ignore the deep and difficult. Do email and don’t think about the checkbook. Work longer hours and tune out the difficult marriage. It’s part of being human.

And I wonder, how does this apply to our theology? Robert Wright just wrote a New York Times Opinion piece on the Koran and the Bible. He focused on the human capacity to embrace one thing in order to ignore something else. On both sides! Emphasize “infidels” while ignoring peace, hate on “others” while neglecting love.

Wright asks, “Why do people tend to hear only one side of the story? A common explanation is that the digital age makes it easy to wall yourself off from inconvenient data, to spend your time in ideological “cocoons,” to hang out at blogs where you are part of a choir that gets preached to. Makes sense to me. But, however big a role the Internet plays, it’s just amplifying something human: a tendency to latch onto evidence consistent with your worldview and ignore or downplay contrary evidence.”

I thought about the whole anti-Islam thing that’s happening in the United States today, the Tea Party Protesters, the general discord and anger, and that many of the people at the front of the protests, carrying a white poster board sign stapled onto a stiff wood stick, are committed Christians. The rhetoric is often biblical and the passion is real. I wonder if they are being duped.

It is so easy to focus on something simple, something obvious, and make that obvious thing the point of our righteous Christian wrath. But as we focus on political and religious “enemies,” Jesus says “sell everything and give it to the poor.” “Can’t be rich and get into the kingdom of heaven.” Fat rich guys trying to squeeze through an eye-of-the-needle kind of stuff. But we avoid. We shrug, blink twice, scream “Islam is of the devil!!!!!” Repeating the extremist mistake ourselves.

Is Islam more of a threat to Americans than consumerism? Why are the potential deaths from a terrorist attack scarier than the current deaths caused by global warming? Are we focused in order to avoid?

Maybe we steer clear of real issues by focusing on what’s obvious and easy. It seems to me that if we took the scriptures seriously that deal with possessions and justice, we might have to change our lives. Sell something. Give up a piece of the “American Dream.” Change.

It's far easier to be angry at Muslims. 

Generation Ex-Church: A look from the other side.

My wife and I were surprised to see an old friend the other day in downtown Columbia. After the usual “how are you?”  small talk and some shuffling of feet, my wife and I learned that he was dealing with a terminal illness in his family. He’s an amazing guy, with the kind of deep and abiding faith that is expressed more in his life than in obnoxious bumper stickers or WWJD bracelets. He’s a person I deeply respect.

Ticia and I walked away, shaken by the news of impending death, and thought about the local church he is a member of, grateful for how strongly it supports him in a time of profound need. Taking care of kids, helping with food, being there to listen, praying. It’s beautiful. And it’s the way it should be. And I’m glad he has that faith family.

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A Muslim-American College offers hope, but needs help

With all the election-year nonsense being spouted about the Islamic Cultural Center in New York, I thought it interesting to see the emergence of another cultural influence on the other coast. This fall, Zaytuna College is opening its doors as a small, faith-based institution in the San Francisco Area. Faculty hope to assist students to integrate faith and learning, the curriculum includes intentional spiritual formation, and the College’s vision extends to the shaping of American society.

What, another Christian college? Don’t we already have plenty of those around? While it might sound like your typical Evangelical college, it’s not. It’s a Muslim College, with the Koran as a firm foundation. The stated mission of the college is to “educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders, who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society.”

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An Islamic Cultural Center?

The Islamic Cultural Center! The ISLAMIC cultural center? The Islamic CULTURAL center? Depends on which news you watch and what papers you read. To some, it sounds like the second choice. Sarah Palin has weighed in. Jon Stewart made his views known. President Obama gave a speech, after Mayor Bloomberg finally came out of his civil rights closet to make a solid statement.

And I really don’t get what the fuss is about. As if there are not already two mosques located within four blocks of the trade center site, one of which predated the building of the World Trade Center. In fact, none other than Fox news recently reported that “New York City has more than 100 mosques . . . more than 800,000 of its 8.21 million residents are Muslims, said Philip Banks III, chief of the NYPD Community Affairs Bureau.” My friends, New York City has more Muslims than the entire populations of two Islamic nations: Bahrain and Qatar.

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Mark has been working in higher education for over 15 years. He has served as a professor, a dean, and a college president. He has consulted and taught in over thirty-five countries.