According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Loudest Christian Voices are the Humble, the Peacemakers, the Hopeful, and Grace-Givers...

The Changing Face of Christian Politics

In the closing days of 2013, Representative Steve King summed up the year in religion and politics well. After a year in which Christian leaders and organizations mobilized to pressure Congress on immigration reform, King was ready to take off his gloves: "We might lose [the immigration] debate in this country because of the sympathy factor, and it's also added to by a lot of Christian groups who misread the scripture, and I'm happy to take on that debate with any one of those folks."

As a frequent speaker at "values voter" conferences, King must have felt odd positioning himself in direct opposition to Christians. Then again, 2013 was a year defined by Christian leaders seeking to realign themselves politically to meet the challenges of a new century and changing culture.

Christian political engagement is changing in this country as believers seek to untangle their faith from the worldliness of partisan politics and ideology. The melding of Christianity and partisan politics has been 40 years in the making, but the costs of that entanglement have only become clear to Christians over the last decade.

In response to changing cultural mores in the 1960s and '70s, religious leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell—who had previously spurned partisan political engagement—called Christians to "stand for what is right" through the acquisition of political power. "In a nation of primarily Christians," they reasoned, "why are we struggling to influence our nation's policy decisions?" Soon, Christians became aligned in practice and perception with the Republican Party, pursuing almost exclusively a one-party strategy for political victory.

Exploring Evolution Series: Discovering Convergent Evolution between Disseparate Living Things

How evolution shapes the geometries of life:
Scientists solve a longstanding biological puzzle

Feb 17, Biology/Evolution

New research suggests that the shapes of both plants and animals evolved in response to the same mathematical and physical principles. By working through the logic underlying Kleiber’s Law (metabolism equals mass to the three-quarter power) and applying it separately to the geometry of plants and animals, researchers were able to show that plants and animals display equivalent energy efficiencies. Credit: Loretta Kuo

Why does a mouse's heart beat about the same number of times in its lifetime as an elephant's, although the mouse lives about a year, while an elephant sees 70 winters come and go? Why do small plants and animals mature faster than large ones? Why has nature chosen such radically different forms as the loose-limbed beauty of a flowering tree and the fearful symmetry of a tiger?

These questions have puzzled life scientists since ancient times. Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Padua in Italy propose a thought-provoking answer based on a famous mathematical formula that has been accepted as true for generations, but never fully understood. In a paper published the week of Feb. 17, 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team offers a re-thinking of the formula known as Kleiber's Law. Seeing this formula as a mathematical expression of an evolutionary fact, the team suggests that plants' and ' widely different forms evolved in parallel, as ideal ways to solve the problem of how to use energy efficiently.

If you studied biology in high school or college, odds are you memorized Kleiber's Law: metabolism equals mass to the three-quarter power. This formula, one of the few widely held tenets in biology, shows that as living things get larger, their metabolisms and their life spans increase at predictable rates. Named after the Swiss biologist Max Kleiber who formulated it in the 1930s, the law fits observations on everything from animals' energy intake to the number of young they bear. It's used to calculate the correct human dosage of a medicine tested on mice, among many other things.

But why does Kleiber's Law hold true? Generations of scientists have hunted unsuccessfully for a simple, convincing explanation. In this new paper, the researchers propose that the shapes of both plants and animals evolved in response to the same mathematical and physical principles. By working through the logic underlying Kleiber's mathematical formula, and applying it separately to the geometry of plants and animals, the team was able to explain decades worth of real-world observations.

"Plant and animal geometries have evolved more or less in parallel," said UMD botanist Todd Cooke. "The earliest plants and animals had simple and quite different bodies, but natural selection has acted on the two groups so the geometries of modern trees and animals are, remarkably, displaying equivalent energy efficiencies. They are both equally fit. And that is what Kleiber's Law is showing us."

Picture two organisms: a tree and a tiger. In evolutionary terms, the tree has the easier task: convert sunlight to energy and move it within a body that more or less stays put. To make that task as efficient as possible, the tree has evolved a branching shape with many surfaces – its leaves.

"The tree's surface area and the volume of space it occupies are nearly the same," said physicist Jayanth Banavar, dean of the UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. "The tree's nutrients flow at a constant speed, regardless of its size."

With these variables, the team calculated the relationship between the mass of different tree species and their metabolisms, and found that the relationship conformed to Kleiber's Law.

To nourish its mass, an animal needs fuel. Burning that fuel generates heat. The animal has to find a way to get rid of excess body heat. The obvious way is surface cooling. But because the tiger's surface area is proportionally smaller than its mass, the surface is not up to the task. The creature's hide would get blazing hot, and its coat might burst into flames.

So as animals get larger in size, their metabolism must increase at a slower rate than their volume, or they would not be able to get rid of the excess heat. If the were the only thing that mattered, an animal's metabolism would increase as its size increased, at the rate of its mass to the two-thirds power. But Kleiber's Law, backed by many sets of observations, says the actual rate is mass to the three-quarters power.

Clearly there's a missing factor, and scientists have pored over the data in an attempt to find out what it is. Some have proposed that the missing part of the equation has to do with the space occupied by internal organs. Others have focused on the fractal, or branching, form that is common to tree limbs and animals' blood vessels, but added in new assumptions about the volume of fluids contained in those fractal networks.

The UMD and University of Padua researchers argue a crucial variable has been overlooked: the speed at which nutrients are carried throughout the animals' bodies and heat is carried away. So the team members calculated the rate at which animals' hearts pump blood and found that the velocity of blood flow was equal to the animals' mass to the one-twelfth power.

"The information was there all along, but its significance had been overlooked," said hydrologist Andrea Rinaldo of Italy's University of Padua and Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale. "Animals need to adjust the flow of nutrients and heat as their mass changes to maintain the greatest possible energy efficiency. That is why animals need a pump – a heart – and trees do not."

Plugging that information into their equation, the researchers found they had attained a complete explanation for Kleiber's Law.

"An elegant answer sometimes is the right one, and there's an elegance to this in the sense that it uses very simple geometric arguments," said physicist Amos Maritan of the University of Padua. "It doesn't call for any specialized structures. It has very few preconditions. You have these two lineages, plants and animals, that are very different and they arrive at the same conclusion. That is what's called convergent evolution, and the stunning result is that it's being driven by the underlying physics and the underlying math."

Provided by University of Maryland -
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Center-Set v. Boundary-Set Maintance - "The Ties that Bind that Must be Broken," Parts 1-3

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

by John W. Hawthorne
November 25, 2013

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90's (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more [on that] later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn't want to limit the children's sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source [of this study]. It appears to be apocryphal though regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

Trafalgar Square, London, England

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but at the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. The picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows His sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community in such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

The Strength of Weak Ties, by Mark Grannovetter

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between "bonding social capital" and "bridging social capital." In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

The tightest relationships are not the most powerful when
we need to broaden our reach within the organization.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, I was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millenials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.... The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

I felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.

* * * * * * * * * *

Bruegel the Elder, the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

by John W. Hawthorne
February 17, 2014

The picture [above] is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.

I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.

But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.

Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it [and are discovering it].

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.

We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same
bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.

And we did it for the same two reasons that the Tower was
built in the first place: Pride and Fear.


Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.

We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.

Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.

I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.


If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.

This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.

In the words of Elmer Fudd, "Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid."

Fear take us to funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?

Neither Pride Nor Fear

Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.

We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.

What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. [We may find] reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).

In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.

I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.

Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.

As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev [re the Iron Curtain of Berlin, East Germany], "Tear Down Those Walls!"

* * * * * * * * * *

How Social Networks Can Harness
the Power of Weak Ties

May 11, 2013

While everyone seems to be expounding with great awe about the speed of change on the internet – especially the uptake of social media technologies like Facebook – it is interesting to note that there are really two factors being discussed:

1)      The social networking technology

2)      The human dynamics related to social networking

The technology hype is natural.  The power of tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yammer, are pretty astounding.  These tools give us a way to connect with people faster and more easily than ever before.

A lot of the Social Media Mavens, however, are really ranting, not about the technology, but about the human dynamics related to social networking.  These dynamics have been around for thousands of years, and have been written about extensively for decades – like in this 1973 article by Mark Granvotter in the American Journal of Sociology, The Strength of Weak Ties.

If we separate the human aspect of social networking from the technology, we can learn a lot more about the power of networks – not just from today’s pundits, but from many years of sociological research on the topic.

For example, Harvard professor Andrew McAfee sums up the Strength of Weak Ties theory nicely, describing how acquaintances with whom we are less familiar are more likely to tell us things we don’t already know:
People we don’t know all that well are hugely valuable in our work. They’re sources of novelty and innovation (because they know quite different things than we do) and bridges to other social networks (because they know quite different people than we do). 

This implies that digital social tools aimed at facilitating our professional lives might not want to focus too much on helping us stay in touch and work with our closest colleagues. Instead, they might want to help us build, maintain, and exploit a large network of weak ties.

After reading this, I started thinking about this new LinkedIn utility I recently installed.  Initially it seemed like a fairly useless novelty, but I realized that there may be some value in it after all.  If we apply the ‘weak ties’ theory, we might be able to spot people in our network who are both:

a)      Loosely tied to us (i.e., people with whom we don’t share too many connections)

b)      Themselves near the edge of a cluster, with links to one or more other clusters.

Here’s how a typical LinkedIn network might look:

Your weak ties are smaller circles, not at the center of a cluster

I heard more support for the Weak Ties theory while attending a Knowledge Management conference in 2005. At the conference, a representative from Raytheon Corporation spoke about a study they had conducted among their vast employee population.  By taking inventory of employees’ “connections” (this was still a novel concept in 2005), they found that people had grouped into natural clusters.

The clustering of employee groups was not the surprising thing.  The real discovery came when they posed problems for various employees to solve.  They found that the employees near the edge of a cluster were more effective at problem-solving than those in the middle of a cluster.

Why?  Because the people on the edge were more likely to be connected to other network clusters, and therefore had access to information that was not available to people who were “buried” at the middle of a cluster.

Learning and development professionals should remember the Weak Ties theory when designing social learning systems.  It’s not enough for people within functional areas (clusters) to connect.  The real challenge, and value, is to find tools and processes that help people connect  and think “outside the cluster.”

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