6 Toxic Elements in Contemporary Storytelling
A many-branching poison spreads through the land, touching many
news outlets, schools, houses of worship, and families. A new presidential
administration represents hope to much of America in the form of concrete,
inclusive policies. Because of this, some might be tempted to forget the
lessons of the recent past, along with the toxins that lingers, still spurring people
to fear, to hate, to trust the untrustworthy, and to doubt the trustworthy.
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An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020
have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you
realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled
hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as
your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”
are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long
story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest
chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those
who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their
lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some
crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices.
All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all
lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape
to who you are. Never forget that.
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Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice
“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.
Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.
Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.
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Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom
What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.
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Personal Correspondence in Christianity
Christians have always read each other’s mail. Many have written profound letters with every intention of a broader audience reading them. Now that tradition may be at risk, although a few simple steps provide plausible solutions.
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The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)
The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.
As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.
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Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day
Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.
On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.
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Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)
Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.
And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.
Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.
I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.
You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.
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Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.
As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.
Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”
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An Uncritical Appraisal of Your Heroes Is Unfair to Them, to You, and to God
It always seems like such a good idea at the time. You have a hero. Maybe it is someone who you know personally. Maybe it is someone whom you have only observed from afar. Hero worship is a natural human inclination. Everyone does it. There is a certain kind of praise that moves beyond healthy celebration of another’s achievements to self-defeating obliviousness.
The following is not a critique of hagiography as a genre of writing per se. If anything, it is a critique of my original manuscript about Mother Basilea Schlink. It was rejected for publication for being “too hagiographical” and “not critical enough.” During the revision process, I agreed, begrudgingly at first but ultimately definitively. Non-critical spiritual biography (which is what I had written) is not good scholarship.
In the words of medievalist and historical theologian Jim Ginther, “hagiography is a literary category, a form of narrative theology, and a heuristic device.” Good hagiography, good recounting of the lives of the saints should serve those functions. However, to the extent that discussions of heroes of the faith become unidimensional — that dimension being praise and praise only — there are distinct pitfalls.
The problem is two-fold. First, only God deserves our worship. When we praise the saints, what we should be doing is praising God’s work in their lives. I accept this as self-evident in the context of monotheistic theological discourse. (If anyone would care to take me take me to task on that count, feel free to do so in the comments below.) To be fair, when most people celebrate their heroes, including their heroes of the faith, they aren’t really praising those people in the same way that they would be praising God, so this aspect of the problem may be less of an issue.
Second, the real problem is that hero worship is a kind of blindness. By elevating another human, we blind ourselves to our own spiritual potential. By remaining oblivious to the weaknesses of the so-called greatest among us, we fail to see our own weaknesses as opportunities for God’s grace. We forget that Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, and whoever you look up to are people with ordinary struggles, just like the rest of us. The writings of the saints about themselves bear this out. I’m especially thinking of the Theresas here (of Avila and of Lisieux). Their sins loomed large in their exaltation of God.
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