Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. . . .

I'm not sure what the experts would call it, but I measure my life in increments. Two weeks ago today. . . one week from today. . . ten years from now. . . . etc. I'm not sure why I do it, but it helps me to both remember and to plan ahead. Playing that little game today has some extra special meaning for me. The first words of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" have been in my thoughts for several days. You see, we moved here to Elizabethtown on August 31, 1991. Twenty years. So hard to believe. Our days truly are like the grass of the field.

This anniversary is important to me for what it reminds me of. We had been living in the Philly area for six years and were one year into what we are doing now. We had three of our four children and they were little. . . sharing a tiny bedroom we called "the bunkhouse" in a house we were renting from my folks. A move to a bigger place was necessary but the rent for anything bigger in that market was way out of our league. Through a series of miraculous God-planned circumstances, we discovered we could build a house in Elizabethtown for less than renting in the Philly suburbs. Not knowing where the money would come from, we started the process. Along the way, God provided in some amazing and very humbling ways.

That's why I need to pause to celebrate and remember. We never asked for financial help. . . but offers of all types came in from God's people. Generous checks came as we needed them. . . appearing from almost nowhere. I still thank God for those folks. You know who you are. A builder named Gerry Horst stepped up out here and built us a house at what we could afford, making it affordable by allowing us to leave some of the house unfinished while also allowing us to drop the price by doing some of the finish work ourselves. My brother Mark - the most talented wood-working craftsman I know - hung doors, trim, and cabinets. His miter joints still look remarkably perfect! A small army of people came out to help us paint. I can't remember everyone who helped us apply two coats of Pittsburgh Paint's "Bone White" to every square inch of the place, but I do remember Jeff, Bob, Randy, Judy, and Dave as being among the many who drove the 90 miles to help us out for a few hours. Then there was the moving day with the big rented truck and the host of people on both ends who helped to load and unload. Every day that I walk out into our driveway I am reminded of that moving day by the small indentation left in my driveway from the corner of the rental truck lift.

Lots has happened in the twenty years since. I've been thinking about that all week. Over the years I've tried to remember to thank God everyday for the gift of the house we live in. In many ways, I still can't believe that it all happened. We added a child at this house and they are now all grown. The place is filled with amazing memories both inside and out. I've thought a lot about that over the last few days. But there are two overwhelming thoughts I've had as I've pondered the twenty years we've spent in this place.

First, God has reminded me that life on this earth is not what it's meant to be. There's been a lot of pain and heartache since 1991. When I think about the army of people who contributed to our house and our move, I realize that the years and all of our lives have been filled with disease, death, divorce, discord, and all other sorts of messy stuff and brokenness. The rotting window wood I fixed this summer is really representative of life. Moth and rust continue to creep into everything.

But I'm glad there is a second reality. I've also learned that God is and that God is in control. He's in the business of carrying burdens, redeeming suffering, and making all things new. There's a day coming when He'll fix it all and we'll inhabit the new Heaven and the new Earth.

Today, I look back to a great day and thank God for what He did. Today, I look forward to an even better day when all that bad stuff I already mentioned will be healed and happening no more. I was reminded of that once again just yesterday when a pastor friend told me about a woman he knows who was asked, "Tell me about the best day of your life." She answered, "It hasn't happened yet!" I look forward to that moving day as well.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ready Or Not. . . Here She Came. . . .

It's hard to believe that in our post-Katrina world, people would actually be complaining about over-preparation for Hurricane Irene. . . but they are. The older I get, the more convinced I become that you can't be too prepared for the things life throws at you. . . whether it's the weather or the storms of life.

I was thinking about this over the course of the weekend as we worked to get prepared and as we watched a diminished Irene blow through. Our preparation started unexpectedly during a two-day trip to visit our friends Randy and Tammie at their place in Ocean City, NJ. Just as we were preparing to say goodbye and head home on Thursday afternoon, the rains started. Randy has a 16-foot Hobie Catamaran sitting among a dozen other almost identical boats on one of Ocean City's three boat beaches. With only a couple of days until he was heading home for good, he was thinking ahead to the annual routine of getting that boat off the beach and back into storage. He accepted our spontaneous offer to help him with the task before we left. The entire ordeal would have made a great YouTube video as the four of us struggled to lower the mast and carry and trailer the boat in the midst of rain, thunder, and lightning. When Randy asked me to steady the mast with both hands I wondered how long it would be until I was treated to a flash, crack, and front row seat to seeing my entire life re-run before my eyes. Still, we got it done, we laughed, and we wound up with a great memory. Most important. . . we prepared for the storm that was coming.

I did the same when I got home. Our patio furniture and all other potential projectiles were put in the garage. My garbage cans and lids joined them. Since we have a well at our house, I filled coolers with water just in case there was a power outage. I think we were ready.

Storms in life are inevitable. The big difference between life and the weather is that forecasters don't exist who can give us details about the tragedy, struggle, or surprise that might come blowing unexpectedly into our lives as soon as tonight or tomorrow. That's why constant vigilance and preparation are so important. The Scriptures tell us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. The Psalms are full of laments occasioned by those rains. Wise men and woman build the houses of their lives on the solid and rocky foundation of God's Word. Remember singing that song? The older I get, the more and more convinced I become of my need to go to the well of God's Word moment by moment each and every day. It is from that well that we are able to draw our strength.

No storms may hit me today. . . or maybe they will. I don't know. I just need to be prepared. . . over-prepared.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why I Couldn't Watch The VMAs. . . .

Much to my own surprise, I just couldn't do it this year. Truth is, I just decided not to. For years I've been watching the MTV Music Video Awards. I don't think I've missed one since they started. Every year I'd assume my spot on the couch with pen and legal pad in hand. In recent years, my laptop's been at my side. I've watched carefully, processed, thought about, and written/blogged on this annual event that serves as a cultural barometer. I'm convinced that the VMAs offer a window into where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going as a culture. That hasn't changed.

So, what happened this year? I spent the days leading up to last night's show preparing to watch. Then, halfway through the afternoon the thought of watching became increasingly troubling to me. I sensed strongly that there would be better ways to spend my time. One of the things I've learned over the course of 21-plus years of full-time youth culture watching is that sometimes you just get tired, especially when culture watching includes a lot of trudging through muck. It wears you out. That's where I was at yesterday. I was too tired to be looking for signs of life in the midst of what always turns out to be two-hours of discouraging muck that all-too-often leaves me grieving over the muck-makers and the kids who so willingly ingest the muck. Make sense?

As the VMAs kicked off last night, I climbed into bed with a book. I decided to use the time to focus on the light that penetrates our cultural darkness. The book that seemed most appropriate to me was a new book that's been sitting next to my bed ever since it arrived. Byran Chapell's The Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have to Preach is a collection of sermons preached by some highly respected contemporary preachers in response to some of life's hardest circumstances in tragic times. I read George Robertson's sermon that he preached at the funeral of a teenager who had committed suicide. I also read Dan Doriani's sermon in response to the tragedy of child abuse. Both sermons threw the reassuring light of God's Word into the midst of the darkness of two social problems that pervade youth culture today. I went to sleep pondering the life-giving realities of God's Word rather than two-hours of mostly-troubling sermonizing by the cultural icons who are nurturing our kids. I'm glad I did.

At some point I'll be watching this year's VMAs. It just couldn't be last night. All of us need to regularly step away to pause, pray, and reflect on that which is timeless and true. For me, one of those times was last night.

Friday, August 26, 2011

College Football, Entitlement, Miami. . . and Kirk Cousins. . . .

My friend Dan Sterk, a youth worker in Michigan, sent me an email this week. It was short and it wound up being very sweet. Dan was raised to be a fan of the Michigan Wolverines. He married a young lady, Kristen, who is equally enthusiastic about rooting for Michigan. I'm not sure, but it might have been a requirement for him to marry a Michigan fan. Dan told me all that before pointing me to a very interesting and curious YouTube link. . . .

While watching the video, I couldn't help but think about what sports have become in our culture. I thought about athletes and the sense of entitlement they feel. Thanks to role models who flaunt entitlement, we have an entire generation of grade school athletes whose aspirations seem to include a combination of college scholarships and arrogance. Humility is no longer seen as a virtue. I also thought about what's happening at the University of Miami and how the NCAA will respond.

The video features a short speech from Michigan State Quarterback Kirk Cousins. The speech was given at the annual Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. Cousins was chosen to speak on behalf and to all the Big Ten Football players. In a sports culture that increasingly seems and smells like a cesspool, this one is a diamond. Cousins' message, delivery, conviction, and boldness sent a shiver up my spine. . . really. This is a speech that I trust will be seen, heard, and heeded by coaches, athletes, parents, and fans of every age and every sport.

Thanks Dan, for the heads up on this one. And yes, maybe you should shift your allegiance for a year!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

12-Year-Olds And The Little League World Series. . . Too Much Too Soon? . . . .

I don't know if it was every little boy's dream, but it was certainly mine. I played Little League Baseball for the East Abington Little League. My first year at the Double-A level was a year that I remember was filled with aspirations. I'd say that about 95 percent of my aspirational energy was spent dreaming about one day playing on the lush green grass of Connie Mack Stadium. The blacktop of a church parking lot and patchy grass of the neighborhood backyard ball field was consistently transformed in the confines of my imagination into Connie Mack. It happened whether we were playing a game of pick-up or if I was alone throwing an endless number of two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth pop-ups to myself.

The other 5 percent of aspiration kicked into gear this time of year with the arrival of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, an event that culminated with the championship game played on Saturday afternoon before a live television audience tuned in to ABC's Wide World of Sports. A kid can dream, can't he? Of course, our teams never made it.

This year, every game of the Little League World Series is being carried on ESPN/ABC. I tuned in last night to watch our Pennsylvania team record another win in an elimination game. The match-up had been moved from the afternoon slot due to the fact that a crowd exceeding 40,000 was expected. Wow!

What does this growing surge of interest in 12-year-olds playing baseball tell us about who we are? What - if anything - does it do to the kids? I've been thinking about this since reading an article in last Friday's USA Today: "Hershiser says kids crave LLWS attention." (scroll down once you link to find the article). Orel is once-again serving as an analyst for broadcasts of the games. As people wonder if the TV coverage (which, by the way, you have to check out - It's a multi-camera graphic-heavy package) is putting too much pressure on kids (that is, after all, what they are), Hershiser is saying that his focus is on relieving pressure. He accomplishes this by praising the players and focusing on the positive rather than on the inevitable mistakes. But watching the whole package leaves me with the feeling that once again, we are pressuring kids out of childhood, while valuing things that just shouldn't be over-valued as they are.

One of the new books that I'm excited to read is Joe Ehrmann's Inside Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives. You might remember that Ehrmann is the subject of Jeffrey Marx's wonderful book Season of Life. . . one of my all-time favorite sports books. I was flipping through Ehrmann's new book this morning and came across some familiar words regarding the three fundamental cultural lies that every boy is fed regarding his value and worth as a man:

1. Your value and worth lies in your athletic ability.
2. Your value and worth lies in sexual conquest.
3. Your value and worth lies in the level of economic success you achieve.

Sadly, those three lies all find expression in our sports culture. . . a culture that tends toward not only idolizing all three, but weaving them all together.

I'm afraid that what used to be boyhood aspirations are now cultural idols. If you get a chance to watch the Little League World Series this year, think about that as you watch. . . the players, the coverage, the fans, the parents, etc. Have we gone too far?

Monday, August 22, 2011

More Reason To Not Like Abercrombie. . . .

Al Lewis had a great little column yesterday in the Wall Street Journal supplement that runs in many newspapers across the country. Lewis exposes the obvious marketing and publicity push by the edgy and always-envelope-stretching clothing retailer that involves Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino of MTV "Jersey Shore" fame.

It seems that Sorrentino is annoying and upsetting Abercrombie by wearing their brand on "Jersey Shore." The reason? According to a release from the retailer, "We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans."

OK. . . are you kidding? Yep. . . Abercrombie's fans have been nurtured by the brand into a batch of high moral standards that far exceed the questionable morals promoted by "Jersey Shore." Remember - as Al Lewis reminds us - that this is the same retailer that peddled "Who needs brains when you have these?" T-Shirts for girls a few years ago.

Thanks Abercrombie, for once again looking out for our kids!

Seriously? If nothing else, Abercrombie offers a great case study in how to effectively market product and worldview in today's self-absorbed brand conscious world. Sadly, their strategies work. The brand continues to grow and a host of shallow people continue to indulge their shallowness by buying the product and the worldview.

Should Christians think differently about Abercrombie? Or, am I just an alarmist?

(Click here to see a post I wrote on Abercrombie a few months ago.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Redeeming My Mouth. . . And Singing About It. . .

The other day I was up at the track and I spotted a young female runner who looked familiar. . . but I wasn't sure. I was afraid that any effort on my part to get closer to grab a look would be interpreted as incredibly creepy, especially if she wasn't who I thought she was. It wasn't until Meghan finished her run and was walking in my direction that we officially recognized each other and stopped to chat.

Meghan and my daughter Bethany were great friends in high school. Afater graduation, Meghan left town for college and I'd only see her sporadically. As we caught up, Meghan told me that she's soon leaving for graduate school. "To study what?," I asked. "Speech Pathology," she responded. That answer is always my cue to spout off on how a speech therapist changed my life in big, big ways. I spent several years during early elementary school getting pulled out of class for regular sessions of one-on-one speech therapy in an effort to overcome a horrible lisp. . . . you know. . . the kind where every "s" you utter comes out like sounding like a "th" . . . which would have required me to marry a girl named "Leetha."

As I've gotten older and thought about the hours my speech therapist invested in my life, I am grateful in so many ways. Pragmatically, I was spared lots of harassment I'm sure, thanks to her efforts. I doubt I'd be doing what I'm doing now if it hadn't been for her. I would have most likely had my extroversion squelched and I would have chosen a vocation that required little or no communication skills. But I also think theologically about that experience. The Biblical drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption were worked out in a small way as a woman chose a vocation centered on redeeming broken speech. That's not at all a stretch.

The dualism of the sacred/secular divide we've imposed on our understanding of the world is one that needs to be shattered. Those involved in "full-time" ministry are not about the sacred any more than those who butcher, bake, or candlestick make. Every possible vocational pursuit - in fact every pursuit of life - is sacred as we are to pursue it in praise and honor to God.

After telling Meghan about my own experience and the value her career path played in my life, I got back to walking. While thinking about the redemptive nature of Speech Pathology, I was reminded of the first hymn we sang in my first chapel service on campus as a new student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary back in 1982. "Earth and All Stars" was new to me. I had never heard it before. The words lit me up and sent shivers down my spine, especially the words of stanzas 4 and 5. It reminds me of our need to teach our kids about what it means to live redemptively in all of life.

1. Earth and all stars, loud rushing planets,
sing to the Lord a new song!
O victory, loud shouting army,
sing to the Lord a new song!

Refrain: He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song!

2. Hail, wind, and rain, loud blowing snowstorms,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Flowers and trees, loud rustling leaves,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

3. Trumpet and pipes, loud clashing cymbals,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Harp, lute, and lyre, loud humming cellos,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

4. Engines and steel, loud pounding hammers,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams, loud building workers,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

5. Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band, loud cheering people,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

6. Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom,
sing to the Lord a new song!
Daughter and son, loud praying members,
sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Game, Flash Mobs, and Phony Phone Calls. . . .

So prosecutors in Los Angeles County are deciding what they want to do with The Game. It seems that last Friday the rapper sent out a mischievous tweet to his almost 600,000 Twitter followers. The Tweet invited followers to call a number if they wanted an internship. The phone number connected directly to the Compton station of the County Sheriff's department. As you might imagine, the folks at the Sheriff's department weren't too happy with the "arrival" of a telephonic flash mob.

On a side note, the term "flash mob" is new to the lexicon. Another sign of our changing times. Whenever I see that run-all-too-often flash mob commercial from AT&T (see below), I'm reminded of how fast culture changes. The commercial is tired and old. But just the other night I commented to my wife that our parents might not have a clue what's going on in the spot. What's "yesterday" to us has yet to get traction with the prior generation.

Back to The Game and his flash mob inciting Tweet. . . . This incident and others like it are certainly indicators of what life is becoming in our hyper-connected digital world. Recent flash mob behavior and rioting in Britain show what happens when technological tools are enlisted to indulge our deep-seated depravity. While we might want to point fingers at the technology, the reality is that the technology is only a means to sinful expression. That same sinfulness would be expressed with or without the technology. Our hearts have been finding ways to do their own thing since life in the Garden. The Narcissist will be a Narcissist with or without Twitter. Twitter just makes it easier and more expedient for the Narcissist to indulge their Narcissism in a broader and more immediate manner.

When I first heard the story on The Game, I have to admit that I chuckled a bit. That chuckle was precipitated by a deep knowledge of my own heart and behavior that always seemed to find a way to go to the line without crossing it during my adolescent years. Perhaps I did cross the line a few times. But the fact that I always got away with it led me to believe that it was just innocent fun. I confess that I was one of those people who took full advantage of the ability to enlist the phone illicitly in those oh-so-much-better pre-caller ID days. Just ask Mrs. Zwickel. That poor lady was the last entry in the residential listings of the suburban Philly phone book back before I was even a teenager. I had a good friend - who is now a pastor by the way! - who was complicit in harassing Mrs. Zwickel. We'd use the extension phone in his parents room. . . quietly. . . behind closed doors. Yes, we knew that what we were doing would get us in trouble and we had to be sneaky. My love for phone pranks spiraled down pretty quickly from there, continuing into my college years.

All that to say that there's another way our culture has changed. By and large, the moral constraints that sent us quietly behind closed doors to indulge our devious behavior undercover are gone. Now, what was once seen as vice is now celebrated as virtue. . . or at the very least, it's believed to be morally neutral. So, we behave boldy. Peggy Noonan's wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal is worth reading, as she connects the dots between what's happening in Britain, moral decline, and what just might be on the horizon for us here in the States.

Ideas have consequences. Sadly, we don't see the consequences until long after we've embraced new ideas without thought or critique. It's the same with technology. What we see happening around and within offers convincing proof of our brokenness. I'm afraid it's also the working out of Romans 1. . . "God gave them over. . . "

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yesterday I Stepped Into a Time Machine. . . .

. . . and it threw me into the future that is now. Really. It's true. Here's what happened. I decided to head over to the library at our local college here in town. To give you some context, it's a private liberal arts school with about 1500 traditional undergrads in the student population. It's got a reputation for having high entrance standards, rigorous academics, and a nice little campus. It's not cheap, either. It's the kind of school that would be a first choice rather than a back-up on most kids' lists.

Over the years, this library has become a favorite place for me to do research. Lots of periodicals to scan. Lots of reference materials. The latest and best databases and technology. It's got some nice quiet nooks to hunker down in as well. But I hadn't been in the building for a couple of years. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed to admit that or not. During the last year I've had a good excuse. I was recovering from a bicycle accident and trying to catch up. Time for dedicated library research was nil. The year before that. . . I'm not sure what excuse I can throw at you. I did spend time in other libraries during that time, and I've been afforded additional database access from my home or office. I just haven't been there.

So my trip yesterday was part of my quest to some more digging around as part of my continued research on Digital Kids and the effects of technology on people and our culture. I was excited to get back in there. As a kid, I never in a million years would have dreamed that a trip into a school library would be exciting. . . but it is. But something happened when I walked through the front door. Things on that first floor had changed. . . a lot. So much so that I stopped dead in my tracks and did a full 360 to take it all in.

Here's what I saw. To my left - the periodical shelves - things looked very, very different. Half of the periodical shelves were gone. Not there. Disappeared. The empty half of that side of the room now featured some very well appointed conversation pits, couches, chairs, coffee tables, etc. Doggone it. I loved taking time to walk through and scan the periodical shelves. Now, half of the magazines and journals were gone. To my right - the main reference section - it appeared that more than half of the shelf space had vanished as well. There were fewer shelving units. The units that remained were only 2 or 3 shelves high, rather than going from the floor to ceiling. I could see all the way across the room to the opposite wall and windows. You couldn't do that before. Too many floor to ceiling shelves. Everything looked so scant. In addition, the only people I spotted were one librarian at the main desk, and a woman who looked to be about my age tapping away furiously at one of the computer terminals that offered a gateway to the library catalog and a host of research databases and tools. The computer terminals were about the only familiar thing to me, by the way. Sure it's summer and the students won't be back for a few weeks, but nobody young was in that room.

OK. . . reorient. . . and try to recover as much of your usual routine as possible, I thought. So, I headed over to the remaining periodical shelves and started to scan. Didn't take long at all. Now, over to the terminal to start doing some work. I was situated at a terminal right next to the aforementioned woman who was furiously tapping away. I thought to myself. . . seriously. . . that she must have been a peer working on some kind of research project as well. It wasn't until I was about 20 minutes into my own research that my curiosity got the best of me and I glanced over at her terminal screen thinking that she might be working on a cure for cancer or something like that. Oh man!. . . she was playing Farmville! She continued to do so for almost an hour. Her pack of generic cigarettes sitting on the table next to her keys should have clued me in to the fact that the cancer cure wasn't on her agenda. Yes Toto. . . we're not in Kansas anymore.

Before heading off to other floors and time spent immersed in the book stacks, I had to go over and satisfy my curiosity by asking the librarian one simple question. "I haven't been in here for a couple of years. I've noticed some changes. When and why did all this take place?" She looked at me and said, "In the last two years. And why?" Then, she reached out with two hands towards her own computer terminal, telling me without words that the digital frontier was rapidly changing the look and feel of the library.

But that wasn't all. I proceeded to tell her that I had come in to do some research on the effects that rapidly developing technology was having on people, kids, and culture. That prompted a litany couched in frustration that I have to share. She started to rattle off a bullet list of stuff with words and descriptors that I could never find in book. Her emotion came through loud and clear. . . I just hope that my frantic scribblings after our conversation captured what she was really trying to tell me. Here it is. . .

-Students (at her school and everywhere else) don't know how to read. They read differently in terms of brain function and page engagement than students just a few years ago. The reason? Computer screens as the mediator of words rather than the printed page. Reading has become just plain hard for them and many don't do it.

-You won't find many students in the library except between the hours of 9:30pm and 1am. They use it as a quiet place to study and for group work.

-Students lack skills in critical thinking. They have little desire, little ability, and little/rare skill to think about and process not only what they read, but what they hear in the classroom. . . which leads to. . .

-An inability or even willingness to try to discern truth from error. The reality is that they see no difference between fact and opinion. Their own opinion trumps fact. She used this example - "If someone tells a student that the sun is in the sky, the student will say 'No it's not.'" Case closed.

-And regarding authority. . . they have little or no respect for a professor, writer, or researcher who has spent a lifetime studying something in particular and who has become an expert in their field. They have no idea that someone who has studied something for years might know more than they do. She said they believe that "my opinion trumps your facts and expertise."

-Plagiarism. . . it's huge. Little or no concept that cutting and pasting digital documments written by others might even be wrong.

Yep. . . I stepped into a time machine and was transported into the future that is now. To be honest, none of this was really new to me. I've seen it and encountered it with students in classrooms where I'm the guy at the front. People have been predicting and writing about this new landscape for years. Now, it's here.

What does this mean for those of us who are Christians, who want to learn and teach, who are raising and ministering to kids, and who want to spread the message about rigorous discipleship of the mind and the spiritual depth that follows?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Soul in Cyberspace. . . 14 Years Later. . .

I'm still researching this project related to the role the digital frontier and social media are playing in culture and the lives of our kids. Yesterday I spotted a book on my shelf that was published in 1997, the same year I gave it a read. It's The Soul in Cyberspace by Douglas Groothuis. At the time, it was one of a few serious and thoughtful critiques of our developing digital world written from a Christian perspective. Still, when I spotted it yesterday I brushed it off as 14-years-old and most likely hopelessly outdated. To be honest, I thought it might be as relevant today as a monochrome (green and white, I think) monitor in a high-def flat-screen monitor world.

Still, I picked it up, brought it home, and read it again last night. I realized that with 14 years of monumental change under our belts since Groothuis first published his book, The Soul in Cyberspace was incredibly prophetic for its time and even more so relevant today.

We are integrated, troubled souls who long for redemption. Groothuis looks at and ponders the possible effects of the digital age with a Biblical worldview as the foundation. He says that any investigation of the fate of the soul in cyberspace must confront the jealous deity/god of technology, an almost-universally-held default belief that those things which are new and cutting edge are the only reliable sources for improving the human condition and ushering in redemption. Yes, even in the church. And so, we worship and follow and serve and are consumed by/with this god.

He quotes social critic Langdon Winner on our dangerous propensity (yes, even as Christians!) to quickly say "yes" to all this new stuff, to quickly integrate it without thoughtful reflection into our lives, and then ask questions later. We do that, don't we? And because the digital age has sped things up, we jettison thoughtful reflection much faster than we used to. In fact, we don't even give the need for thoughtful reflection a thought. How about this quote from Winner. . . "In the technical realm we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after signing." Yep. That shows just how ignorant we've become.

Groothuis goes on to call for Christians to tackle life on the digital frontier with a commitment to avoiding worldliness. I like to call that "living redemptively." It's that "in but not of" type of living Jesus prayed for us the night before he died. Groothuis writes, "When worldly though patterns prevail, forms of culture are adopted (whether knowingly or unknowingly) that are God-resisting and dehumanizing; idols are embraced instead of exposed; the relative is absolutized and the absolute relativized."

He goes on to cite one of my heroes of the faith, Jacques Ellul, a sociologist I was first introduced to in college: "The Christian has a prophetic mission to try to think before events become inevitable." That's what I hope our CPYU Digital Kids Initiative will do. I hope that pastors, parents, youth workers and kids adopt a lifestyle of thinking Christianly about these and all other matters.

Re-reading this book reminded me that we need to settle down, stop, reflect, get our bearings, and even embrace 14-year-old thought that we increasingly are led to believe (erroneously) has a very short shelf life.

And for those fearing where I may be headed. . . no. . . I'm not becoming a Luddite.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Are We Making A Digital Mess? . . .

The changes continue. Some are good. Some are troubling. All of us must be thinking about how to live redemptively with the changes in the midst of the changes. . . and then endeavoring to do so. That's what discipleship is all about isn't it? I was reminded of the pressing need to obediently integrate faith into all of life when I saw this morning that Senator Mark Hatfield had died. Hatfield was one of those icons who pushed the integrated faith agenda in a high-profile way when I was a college student. He talked seriously about these things he lived when he spoke to me and thousands of other college students at the Jubilee Conference thirty-some years ago.

Yep. Huge cultural change requires thoughtful reflection centered on biblical truth. That's certainly true as we inhabit the fast-expanding digital frontier. My eyes, ears, and mind have been especially tuned into this reality over the course of the summer as I've focused my time on our new Digital Kids Initiative here at CPYU, the first-fruit of which will be presented in a seminar at this fall's National Youthworkers Conventions.

In the same newspaper that informed me of Hatfield's death this morning, I took a look a close look at one of the two full-pages devoted to comics. Almost one-third of the comics on the page included explicit or implicit references none of us would have understand in a pre-Google, YouTube, email, texting, etc. world. Just seven years ago several of the comics would have left us confused and scratching out heads. But living the last few years on the digital frontier left me laughing.

On another page of this morning's newspaper there was an article about Pages. . . House Pages that is. This is the 200-year-old program that in recent years has enlisted high school students to serve as messengers for Congress while affording them an opportunity to learn first-hand about our U.S. Government. But the $5 million program can no longer be justified in the digital age that's ushered in electronic delivery mechanisms. There just isn't anything for them to deliver anymore. I was a bit saddened by the news as just two months ago I wrote a recommendation for a young friend who was trying to get into the program.

I've been thinking a lot about how life has changed, what we can celebrate, and what we must be paying extra special attention to in this new age of digital explosion. One of the trends I've discovered in my reading and research is that far too many people are accepting change without much thought or critique. On the other hand, those who are sounding warnings - which in many ways are deeply prophetic - linger in the shadows preaching to the choir while naysayers write off their thoughtful critique as over-reaction or alarmist. But the more I read, the more I realize that what they're saying is accurate, and the "frogs" who should be listening are content to boil away without even knowing it. . . at least not yet.

One of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books I've read this summer is Maggie Jackson's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Jackson believes that we are nurturing a culture of diffusion, fragmentation, and detachment. Eventually, it's all going to come crashing down and Jackson - along with others - will be saying "I told you so." I think she's on to something. As I've watched others and myself mingle with all the wonderful stuff afforded to us by life on the digital frontier I've seen far-too-much non-engagement from a biblical perspective. You know. . . the kind of critical thought that says "Hey. . . we might be getting ourselves in too deep here." Idolatry is like that, you know.

In a chapter on "Awareness," Jackson chronicles how our culture has changed just in the way we eat. She tells of a lunch with Dunkin' Donuts Regina Lewis, who serves as head of consumer insight for the brand. Lewis says that Americans want to eat. What they want to eat can't be drippy, crumbling, or spillable. I got to thinking. . . isn't that what a good donut is all about?!? The reason for these preferences is that we are now spending more time eating in our cars and we don't want to spill on or stain our clothes. It's for this reason that non-spillable pizza slice has been developed. . . one you can turn upside down without having anything fall off! Consider these little snippets from Jackson:

-Nearly half of all American say they eat most meals on the go or away from home.

-40 percent of our food budgets are now spent on eating out, compared with a quarter in 1990.

-25 percent of restaurant meals are ordered from the car, up from 15 percent in 1998.

-Even the notion of what constitutes a "meal" has changed. Americans report that 20 percent of their "meals" aren't breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Snacking is now the norm and we fit in "meals" whenever we can.

We're busy, on-the-go, constantly moving. We don't eat together as families anymore. . . or at the very least, rarely. We are perpetually moving. And in a digital world, we are moving even when we are sitting still.

What are the issues this raises in relation to faith and life? What must we be challenging ourselves and the emerging generations to be thinking and doing if we/they hope to live faithfully in this brave new world?

I believe change is a good thing. But if we accept change blindly, we'll be blind to what that change just might be doing to us.