This blog began on 11/20/15. Something in my AP Literature class inspired me to write more, and to put my writing out there to be subjected to scrutiny. That scrutiny has been great for my writing. Blogging through college and seminary helped me to avoid developing an overcomplicated, jargon-heavy academic style. My blog also has had some big moments of its own, most notably my coming out post in March 2019. This little project has become part of my story and part of me as well.
I don’t know how much I will be blogging anymore. Church work is hard and bitter and Christians can be quite judgmental. Sometimes this is good for leaders (James 3:1) but often it is not, so putting my most controversial ideas out there online can become more of a liability than an asset.
With that said, there is effectively no way for me to shut up, so the blog will continue and I will have to write wisely. I have a few focused arguments that I think need to be made. So I’ll make those arguments and otherwise try to post devotionally, writing out of reflective curiosity and generous love. In that spirit here is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people.
Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches.
For my class on the Gospels and Acts, I was asked to reflect on Mark’s vision of discipleship. Follow along in your Bible as you read, because this post is loaded with Scripture.
What is discipleship?
Discipleship is the Imitation of Christ.First, we see early on (1:16-18) Jesus call Simon and Andrew with words that reflect what Jesus is doing in issuing the call: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is fishing, and in doing so, making further fishers. The call is self-referential like Mark as a whole: Mark’s Gospel is a narrative of Jesus’s life, and at the same time functions to make disciples out of those who read it. Second, at the Gospel’s midway point, the seam between its first (1-8) and second (9-16) movements, Jesus tells the crowd what discipleship requires: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34-9:1). Jesus calls the crowd to be open to martyrdom immediately after he has first predicted his own death (8:31-33). Hence taking up the cross is synonymous with the call to “follow me,” the imitation of Christ. Third, when James and John request authority and glory from Jesus (10:35-45), Jesus responds by acknowledging they will suffer his same fate. He concludes his remarks about servant leadership with another comparison to his own example: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus centers his example in his responses to James and John and to the other disciples. Therefore, discipleship is the imitation of Christ.
How do disciples imitate Jesus?
Fight Death. Disciples of Jesus are engaged, first and foremost, in a spiritual battle against the powers of Death that wreak havoc in the world. First, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist characterizes Jesus’s ministry this way: “one more powerful than I… will baptize with holy spirit.” Mark uses the unique word “powerful” (ischuroteros) again later when Jesus is describing his own ministry (3:20-35, Class Notes). How is Jesus’s ministry different from Satan’s work? In a parable, Jesus talks about “binding up the strong man,” who is Satan. So, Jesus’s ministry is the exact opposite of Satan’s work, it is a war against the spiritual forces of darkness and death. Second, Mark depicts Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28 (parallel 5:1-20) (Thiessen, 141-148). He casts out demons from holy places (in the former passage, from the synagogue on the Sabbath) and into unholy places (in the latter passage, into nearby unclean pigs). Jesus’s demon exorcism is not just to heal the possessed, or they would simply be called “healings.” Rather, they are part of a larger fight against “powers and principalities, spiritual forces, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) as another author later writes. Third, Jesus commissions the disciples to cast out demons as well. (Mark 3:14-15 / 6:7-13) (See Witmer 132-142, 153-201 for more). Now, this command is repeated in 16:17, but it does not matter for Mark, because 16:17 is not authentic, it was added later. But this addition indicates that the early church (up to the late 4th century when 16:9-20 was added) continued to practice exorcism, as Jesus originally commanded. Therefore, disciples of Jesus fight Death and the spiritual battle it wages against God.
Live in Constructed Community. Mark depicts discipleship as shared life. First, Jesus constructs a community which, when anything else conflicts with it, must supersede all other forms of community. Jesus says, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive 100-fold in the age to come” (10:29-30). Second, Jesus gives a specific discourse about living in and leading community in 10:35-45 in response to bickering and infighting (10:41) among his disciples. It is in this context that Jesus makes a key statement about discipleship, drawing from his own example: “not to be served… but to serve.” Disciples are to imitate Jesus’s example in our own communities of shared discipleship. Third, there are clues in the text (direct references to crowds, rhetorical use of “we”) which indicate that “Jesus is one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” This portrayal of the life of discipleship as a communion with Jesus would undoubtedly resonate with the experience of Mark’s community” (Joel Marcus 267). Therefore, disciples of Jesus live in constructed communities.
Discernment. Discipleship means seeing and knowing things as they truly are, and this includes events, people, and Jesus’s own mission. First, Mark repeatedly goes out of his way to mention that Jesus “sees” people. The most significant example is 6:34: “When Jesus landed, he looked at the large crowd, and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Joel Marcus (182) also lists these passages: 1:18-20, 2:14, 3:34, 6:34, 8:33, 9:25, 10:21, 23, 27, 12:34. Several of these are about the disciples’ calling). Second, Jesus heals the blind man (8:22-26), and then another blind man (Bartimaeus, 10:46ff). In the former case, the blind man gives an example of not being able to see: he “sees men like trees.” Not animals, not objects, but humans, an unclear perspective of the people around him. Jesus restores vision to the blind to make them like him, as he is so often described as seeing others in Mark’s Gospel. Since Jesus can see, those he disciples are given sight as well, that they may imitate him. Third, disciples of Jesus are to see people and see the world as they truly are. Jesus commands disciples to watch the signs of the time (chapter 13 in its entirety) and to be watchful at Gethsemane, though they keep falling asleep (14:32-42). God is at work in the world. God restores the nation of Israel, symbolically expressed in Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River (1:5 = Jordan river crossing), the commissioning of 12 disciples from a mountain (3:13-19 = 12 tribes & Sinai), and the twelve baskets of bread and seven baskets of bread (8:17-21 = Israel & fullness, restoration). The disciples needed eyes to see this work of God in their time. Therefore, disciples of Jesus must be watchful for the work of God in the world.
Open to the Inner Self. Disciples of Jesus are called to imitate their master by living with an openness to their inner selves. First, in his humanity Jesus sets an example for his disciples as one with a rich emotional life. He is angry (1:41 and 3:5) and sad (14:33). He shows signs of frustration (8:12) and exhaustion (4:38). He feels indignancy (10:14) and love (10:21). These emotions express his true humanity. Second, Luke’s Gospel transfers these emotions onto the disciples or omits them altogether, and Matthew’s Gospel retains them but switches the terms to lesser emotions (like “annoyed” instead of “enraged”) or gives reasons to justify Jesus’s emotions (Asikainen 134-155). Mark does not. His portrayal of Jesus is raw and unfiltered. Third, Jesus’s openness to the inner self would have conflicted with the Greco-Roman ideal of self-mastery over the emotions. Mark’s portrayal is thus particularly sharp, as it subverts contemporary expectations for masculinity. Jesus sets this example for his disciples to follow. Therefore, disciples of Jesus live with an openness to their inner selves.
Divine Silence. Disciples of Jesus have a relationship with Our Father that is not clean, tidy, or convenient. First, Jesus had a rich connection with the Father throughout Mark. The Father literally spoke to him out of heaven (twice: 1:11, 9:7) and Jesus is often withdrawing to solitary places for prayer (1:35, 6:30-32, 46). Second, Mark’s ascent narrative (ch 9-16) follows Jesus ascending from Galilee to Jerusalem. This ascent evokes at once the Mountain of God image from various places in the OT, including both Sinai (Marcus 423) and Zion, along with the narrative substructure of the book of Leviticus (See Morales 257-304), the rhetorical question from the Psalmist “Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?” (24:3), and the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), all in one large conflated image. Yet the opposite end comes than one would expect. Jesus will not enter the presence and the glory of the LORD in the temple. He must die (8:31-33 / 9:30-32 / 10:32-34). From Gethsemane to the end, Jesus does not pray and the Father is silent. Third, Bonhoeffer, confined to prison in Tegel and perhaps viewing the whole world through the lens of that space, cites Mark 15:34 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). He felt the hollow sting of protracted abandonment by God which Jesus also felt in his final hours. “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us,” Bonhoeffer wrote (July 16th, 1944, italic original). Jesus’s cry on the cross amounts to a functional atheism. There ends our portrait of Jesus in Mark. Even as word of his resurrection leaks out, our extant text ends before we see him alive, victorious. Fourth, the Word of God is hidden, so that those without the spirit of discernment cannot find it (4:11-12). Jesus’s life is itself a parable, as are the spiritual journeys of his faithful disciples. When we seek and do not find the voice of God, then we know that we are following the true Christ.
Asikainen, Susanna. Jesus and Other Men: Ideal Masculinities in the Synoptic Gospels. Boston, MA: Brill, 2018.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macamillan Company, 1959 edition.
Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000.
Morales, L. Michael. “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD?” A Biblical Theology of Leviticus. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015.
Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.
Witmer, Amanda. Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2012.
The photos are some shots of mine from the past two weeks on campus. Filtered with +0.5 exposure, -1.0 saturation, +1.0 fade. Trinity’s native falcon appears in one of the photos, for those with eyes to see.
Today I gave the pastoral prayer at my church. Here is the text:
Pray with me, selections from the Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty God, who has placed us in this country for its betterment:
Bless our land with honorable and abundant work, sound and safe learning, and peace. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many nations and languages. Fill with the spirit of wisdom those entrusted with the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace.
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Yet we live in days of trouble, division, and injustice. Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; so that we may live in justice and peace.
We give thanks for Pastor Mike’s recovery from Covid and pray you give him full health. To medical researchers working to create a vaccine, give ingenuity and patience. To victims of wildfire in California, Oregon, and Colorado, give protection and provision. We remember now the 412 first responders nineteen years ago who laid down their lives for the lives of others. May they remain for us a parable of your Son’s own life. Comfort as well the families of the victims of the attack, God of all comfort.
All of this we ask through the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hello my friends. Social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus, which for most people means lots of Netflix. Here are 10 good movies on Netflix — I have checked, they are all available in the US for at least the month of March — to enjoy while apart from friends.
Note that besides Spider-Verse and The Two Popes, none of these are appropriate for family viewing.
Length: 2 hours 17 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 93 Description: An incisive and compassionate portrait of a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
Length: 2 hours 38 minutes Language: Korean Metacritic: 90 Description: The difficult life of Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), a frustrated introvert, is complicated by the appearance of two people into his orbit: first, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), a spirited woman who offers romantic possibility, and then, Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy and sophisticated young man she returns with from a trip. When Jongsu learns of Ben’s mysterious hobby and Haemi suddenly disappears, his confusion and obsessions begin to mount, culminating in a stunning finale.
We the Animals
Length: 1 hour 34 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 83 Description: Us three. Us brothers. Us kings, inseparable. Three boys tear through their childhood, in the midst of their young parents’ volatile love that makes and unmakes the family many times over. While Manny and Joel grow into versions of their loving and unpredictable father, Ma seeks to shelter her youngest, Jonah, in the cocoon of home. More sensitive and conscious than his older siblings, Jonah increasingly embraces an imagined world all his own.
Length: 1 hour 51 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 99 (!) Description: Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
There Will Be Blood
Length: 2 hours 38 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 93 Description: When Daniel Plainview gets a mysterious tip-off that there’s a little town out West where an ocean of oil is oozing out of the ground, he heads there with his son, H.W., to take their chances in dust-worn Little Boston. In this hardscrabble town, where the main excitement centers around the Holy Roller church of charismatic preacher Eli Sunday, Plainview and H.W. make their lucky strike. But even as the well raises all of their fortunes, nothing will remain the same as conflicts escalate and every human value—love, hope, community, belief, ambition, and even the bond between father and son—is imperiled by corruption, deception, and the flow of oil.
Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse
Length: 1 hour 57 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 87 Description: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.
Length: 3 hours 29 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 94 Description: The Irishman is an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.
The Two Popes
Length: 2 hours 5 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 75 Description: Behind Vatican walls, the traditionalist Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the reformist future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.
Length: 1 hour 39 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 61 Description: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.
*This isn’t a great movie, but Jordan Peele has a remake coming out this summer, so watch the original before seeing that.
Length: 1 hour 41 minutes Language: English Metacritic: 80 Description: After a botched bank robbery lands his younger brother in prison, Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) embarks on a twisted odyssey through the city’s underworld in an increasingly desperate—and dangerous—attempt to get his brother out of jail. Over the course of one adrenalized night, Constantine finds himself on a mad descent into violence and mayhem as he races against the clock to save his brother and himself, knowing their lives hang in the balance.
I have tried to hold back and even now will keep holding back. Half of what demands to be said is too hard to say well, for the emotions but no less for the sake of precision. I’m writing about the secret motivations of others, and about my own interior life, and about these big abstract entities called “evangelicalism” and “homophobia.” The margin of error is wider than the target. But something needs to be written so that this time can be known after my memory fades. Put shortly: my life has bled fire and I don’t recognize the person I was a year ago.
Winter and Spring
January, February, and March were spent working up the nerve to come out publicly. I wrote an essay and edited it for months. In conversation after conversation I came out early to those who deserved to know. These months held a sense of rising action, my life animated by plot, suspense. But I was unprepared for the mix of reactions I would receive. I had found an article saying everything would go great. That, along with many conversations with (straight) professors and pastors left me clueless about what would come.
My former employer denied me a job because I came out, and then offered me another, lesser job on specious conditions that amounted to workplace harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. (Of course, I turned that down, as it was not a legitimate offer at all). It was unfair and it burned. I spent hours of those days screaming in my room. I would rant what I wish I had said. Whenever my mind went quiet, the rage would return. One time I remembered it while alone in the car. I beat the steering wheel until my right hand bruised. This lasted for months. At the same time, I had to bottle these emotions because of the reactions I kept getting from others across my Christian life. I couldn’t handle everything at once.
April and May. The anger I felt about losing my job continued. A roommate didn’t talk to me for 3 weeks after coming out. Some people at church said things. [Redacted so that I don’t get another angry message from them for talking about them online]. Another person said another thing, but worse. Most people said exactly nothing ever. I was failing Hebrew, the hardest class I had ever taken. I would open Quizlet to study vocab and start to shake, my blood pressure surging. I would cry myself to sleep the nights before that class. The stress of grad school (for which my undergrad was no help) grew along with questions about whether any church would ever take me as a pastor. If not, why bother with Hebrew? I scraped rock bottom between this class and the rejection I felt from work and alienation from church and school…
Meanwhile, something worse happened. A camper from my cabin in 2016, 17, and 18, who I loved deeply, committed suicide. I have never grieved someone’s death so hard. I felt survivor’s guilt. He had looked up to me. Could I have done more? Said something? My last words to him were that I wouldn’t see him that summer because I wasn’t on staff anymore. His loss gnawed at me, and I became empty and hopeless. I listened to sad songs on repeat and thought about death, immobile on the Lower Waybright couch for hours. I wrote him letters and tore them up, because none worked. While this wound was still raw, every additional perceived slight related to my sexuality was 10x harder. The worst timed example was the day before his visitation, when I was brought into a trick meeting about sexuality [redacted to avoid angry emails etc]. It broke my trust in a few key people.
Summer and Fall
The school year ended, and I lived as a hermit on campus for the summer. Alone, isolated, desolate. Any church conflict froze because we went on summer schedule. My feelings of ostracization and exclusion cemented. But there was a single beacon of hope: the Revoice Conference. Finally, a place where I felt no need to defend or justify myself. Or even explain myself. They already got it. Everything was very warm, very gay, very celibate. I have never felt more at home. But that week ended, and my isolation on campus resumed. I would go half-weeks without seeing another person.
A professor at school recruited me into a high school leadership program for two weeks. I instantly said yes — people! After I decided to join and only logistics remained, I was told to be closeted for the two weeks. Delete social media posts, etc. This was hard for me, but worse, it impacted someone else more than myself. The program slowly became a living hell that I regretted joining. Then, the summer continued. The job that rejected me took me for one week, no conditions, because they were short staffed. This was incredible (and hypocritical). It became a week of joy, healing, and growth. It also compounded my anger. I have a vivid memory of scream-weeping on the floor when I found out that an LGBT student had decided to follow Jesus because of a conversation we had. Why was I there for 6 days instead of 10 weeks? The bitter truth: the gospel does not matter. Keeping the status quo does.
It became impossible to separate the voices. One person’s stray remark over lunch blended into another’s haphazard Facebook screed. The friend “just trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing” and the stranger arguing that gay people are inherently pedophilic were not the same person, but they might as well have been. Those who gave me an awkward cold shoulder for months, those who talked to me with false enthusiasm to make sure I felt “welcomed,” and those who accused me of living in sin behind my back but would never confront me — all different people, all one person. The friend so behind on this topic that his only analysis was that “some people are just behind on this topic.” Everyone became one voice, each guilty of what all the others had said and done.
August. New semester. I got an email that changed everything. [Redacted to avoid angry responses]. My whiplash reaction was a pathetic attempt to hold it together, but everything was falling apart regardless. [Redacted an entire paragraph]. After that experience, it became clear that things needed to change. October. I left my church for good, trying to find a place that would do more than tolerate my existence as a celibate gay man. [Redacted]. I eventually found one. Things have inched towards improving since then. I made it through the fall and early winter. There were episodes of week-long blues, laying around for days doing nothing, unable to make myself try. Gazing out my window, lifeless, watching dry leaves fall, also lifeless. I kept up counseling and have tried to process what has happened, especially [redacted] and the loss from that. The semester ended and I somehow passed all my classes.
In short. I took a huge risk, unaware it was a risk at all, and it worked against me. Then, the various aspects of my life each went up in flames. Other unrelated bad things that happened (Hebrew issues and my camper dying) were accelerants for the fire. The resulting blaze killed the me I used to know. My experience of God, my theology, my most important relationships, my career direction, even my personality have been caused to change. In November and December I have been rebuilding something of myself from the bare foundations: the Resurrection of Jesus, the people who supported me, and my testimony. I don’t have much else.
I turned 22 but aged to 30 at least. Everything looks different now. The world is bigger, more interconnected, more threatening, and more fragile but more worth saving. I overcame my irony poisoning and became more earnest, sincere, and direct. I am less sarcastic, because less things seem funny. I am softer and quieter. My cynicism is deeper. I act like I have a constant headache. When things got really hard, I didn’t have the capacity to care about my skincare routine or exercising or cleaning my dorm. I let myself go in these and other ways. I didn’t and don’t care. It became hard to do my school work even though it felt like it mattered for the first time. Anything unnecessary about my exegetical method melted. What remained was concentrated and serious. Unflinching. My way of interacting with others changed. Little pet peeves became irrelevant. Tap your pencil against the table, leave your coffee grounds in the sink, fake-laugh at my jokes, I don’t care. Just don’t tell me that my faith requires me to “chemically castrate” myself, and we’re good.
I have lost hope that evangelicalism can be a welcoming or even hospitable place for gay people. Burn it to the ground and start over. I don’t know whether I will apply for pastoral jobs when I graduate, but if so, it will not be in the kind of churches I have always called home. If no pastoral routes work, I could continue to nerd away at a PhD program. I hate that the only reason I would do a doctorate would be because virulent homophobia has killed my other options, where my real passions lie (i.e., student ministry). Also unfortunately, my grades have been bad enough this year that I would need to do a successful ThM first. I want to avoid this path if at all possible.
Things will get better. Or who knows, maybe 2019 was tame compared to what 2020 holds. I am not a prophet. But I know that this year has been bitter, and I shouldn’t sweeten it with the conclusion that I have become a better person for enduring it. No. I would be a more faithful follower of Jesus today if it wasn’t for all this. I wouldn’t be filled with rage. I wouldn’t have half-seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether. I wouldn’t have repeatedly lost my will to live. Sure, I gain “having a great testimony,” but everybody just wants the bragging rights that comes with that, not the traumatic experience itself. Everything has hurt. Everything has died. Where did I go? The Ross who lived before will live on only as memory:
They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.
I tutor and TA the undergrad Intro to Philosophy classes. Today I met with a student who didn’t understand Kant and synthetic a priori knowledge. (Been there). We met for an hour. I explained the idea to him in simpler terms until he got it. Then we were out of material but I wanted to get paid for the full hour so I showed him my writing editing website. We did a few examples and he saved the page to use again next time. He was glad for it, since his major is Com. He talked a bit about his experience on campus and the culture on his athletic team. He had some not bad ideas about how to change the school culture. Even though he’s only been here a few months, he has his finger right on the pulse of the real problems.
As we ended I asked if there was anything I could I pray about for him. Yeah, he said. He wasn’t sure if he had the money to keep coming to school. He might have to drop sports to get a job to pay for school. He also wants friends on campus, and hasn’t found almost any good ones. I prayed that God would generously provide for everything he needs. That God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, would give him wisdom to decide what to do with athletics. That God would bring new friends into his life so he would have meaningful and deep relationships.
His eyes held tears. “Hey, its okay,” I tried to say, but he said, “I didn’t know anyone here cared about me.” Oh. Wow. Here I am, the philosophy department tutor, only expecting to explain Kant’s synthetic a priori knowledge to a student. Suddenly I am in a position to speak a Word of grace into his life. “Hey, Jesus cares about you, my friend, so I’ll care about you too.”
He asked if there was anything he could pray about for me. Yeah, I said. My whole life felt upside down since I left my church a few weeks ago, and that I was trying to adjust to a new place where I can grow and serve. He prayed for me. We then talked the whole way from the student center back to the other side of campus. He pointed out a teammate of his along the way. He showed me a meme. He asked for my phone number. We set a time to meet next week, since, inevitably, there will be something in class this week he won’t understand. Yes, welcome to philosophy.
This was no radical act of Christian subversion of our social structures or the entire juridico-political order or something. This was not me pushing myself to live BOLDLY for JESUS amid PERSECUTION by SECULARISM or whatever. I sat there, listened to him, cared about him (and really meant it), and prayed with him. Maybe Christian life-together is that simple.
This morning I proctored a test for the Intro to Philosophy class that I TA. Before we began, I said welcome to class on Columbus Day, our worst holiday, and that I have a theologically subversive prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Here it is:
O God, who hast made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after thee and find thee; bring the nations into thy fold; pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The reconciling work of the Son who preaches to those near (Jews) and those far (Gentiles) confirms God’s creation of humanity as of one blood. Our reconciliation is no more than, and certainly no less than, a participation in the redemptive reconciliation that God has already begun in the death of Jesus and decisively achieved in his resurrection. I don’t have much power, in the world or over my life or at my university, but I do get to pray before Philosophy tests, and the reconciling power of the Gospel can be proclaimed here as well.
For three years I have been hunting for a verse my OT prof showed our class that absolutely slams ostriches. It never occurred to me to just google “ostrich in the bible.” Anyways, today I was translating 2 Corinthians 4 and saw a cross-reference to Jars of Clay in the OT (Lamentations 4:2) and found it in the next verse: Lamentations 4:3b, “my people have become heartless, like ostriches in the desert” (NIV).
Unfortunately this does not seem like a good translation. The Hebrew text is corrupted (someone tried to put the first letter of Ostrich as the last letter of “like”) but we can quickly resolve that to mean “Like ostriches,” not “Likeo Striches.” Okay. So assuming we now have the right word, the other problem is that there is a clearer text (Job 39:13-18) that mentions Ostriches being terrible moms and letting their eggs sit on the ground where they can be crushed. And that word for Ostrich, ranan, is totally different from Lamentation’s word for Ostrich, ya’an. So why would we think Lamentations 4:3b means “Ostrich”?
But it gets worse. Lamentations 4:3 gets translated in the Greek OT (the LXX) as “Sparrow” instead of Ostrich, so that it is the same word Jesus uses to say “are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Leaving aside the synoptic issue that Matt 10:29 says “two sparrows for a penny” and Luke 12:6 says “five sparrows for two pennies,” and 50¢ is not equal to 40¢ —just totally leaving that aside — I honestly do not think that an ostrich would sell for less than a dollar, period. In modern Capitalism that would never fly, much less the Roman patronage honor/shame economy. I’ve just googled it and found that an Ostrich egg costs about $1000, which given the current minimum wage is 3 weeks wages, or 21 shekels. Just for the egg!
But it gets even worse. Remember how I said that Job 39:13-18 is clearly about an Ostrich? Well, there is no reason to think that is the case. The word ranan is also a single-use word, and the Greek LXX translation of ranan is totally missing! The translators of the LXX just skip it. “Wings flap joyfully,” it says, refusing to specify which bird’s wings so flap.
BDB helpfully connects ya’an with the feminine form of the same root, ya’anah, or Greed. Their implication is that “bat ya’anah” is “daughter of greed, of ostrich as voracious bird.” Similar cognates in Aramaic and Arabic gloss as “daughter of the desert or steppe, from [an Arabic word I can’t transliterate] meaning hard, unproductive soil.” It seems like there is some semantic value as Desert Bird or Greedy Bird, though it probably comes between those, with some broadly Semitic “Desolation Bird.” BDB also connects ya’anah to “wailing (as mourning) (Micah 1:8)… a symbol of loneliness (in Job 30:29)… of desolation, as dwelling among ruins (Isa 13:21, 34:13), and living in a desert (Isa 43:20).” Most interestingly of all, it is associated with “unclean (Lev 11:16 (&par. Deut 14:15)),” where it is a bird prohibited from being eaten along with many other strange birds whose exact translations are uncertain.
Enter A. Walker-Jones and his balls-to-the-wall article “The So-Called Ostrich in the God Speeches of the Book of Job (Job 39,13-18).” He argues that Job 39:13 should be translated as “Sand Grouse” not Ostrich, for a number of biological and contextual observations, not to mention linguistic. He found an early Christian reflection on nature which blurs together Job 39:13 and Jeremiah 8:7, which influenced Jerome to translate ranan as Ostrich. He also compares the physiology of sand grouses, hoopoe larks, and stone curlews, ruling out the latter two for the lines on its neck and the sound of their mating call, respectively. He thinks Lamentations 4:3b refers to owls, not Ostriches, and that it would not make sense in the ANE for Ostriches to be criticized, since their feathers were the symbol of truth and justice. Instead, “The danger here is that impressive, modem folk stories are being read back into an ancient Near Eastern text,” especially Pliny’s criticism of Ostriches, which was particularly unfounded anyway. Owls are chaos creatures, while Ostriches associate with truth and justice. Which is more likely to neglect its eggs? That’s right, the chaos creature.
There are more links I cannot trace down (I’m supposed to be translating 2 Corinthians 4 for my Paul class) to Ostriches: vision strong enough to hatch their eggs by looking at them, Ostriches that can eat glass and metal, and tremendous confusion throughout the ancient world about whether Ostriches were birds or mammals. (Aristotle thought mammals, because they have eyelashes). Three years. I spent three years trying to find that Ostrich slam, just to find it was never about Ostriches at all.
The go-to answer for this question is social media. Instagram and Snapchat cause teens to compare themselves to one another. They then feel inferior because their hidden self is worse than everyone else’s performative self. This may be true in general, but I think people who answer the question this way don’t really understand how teens use social media or understand the bigger and worse problem lurking in teenage life in America in 2019.
School starts at, say, 8:00 and lasts until 3:30, for a total of 7.5 hours each day, 37.5 hours a week. But that is the bare minimum. Say you are in a sport: 2 hours of practice each weekday and 5 hours of Saturday are now consumed. Then say you work a part-time job. Teens increasingly need to work part-time jobs in high school in order to brunt the rising cost of college tuition (or trade school tuition, also rising). Even if they only work 10 hours a week, that’s 10 hours, gone. Now assume, and this is an understatement, that they have 2 hours of homework each night. Total everything up and this hypothetical student works 62.5 hours each week.
Compare this 62.5 hours per week with the average American adult work week of 44 hours and you may begin to understand the problem. Then realize that the US has the highest average work hours per week of any post-industrial, developed nation. If American adults are worked thin by their schedule, teens are destroyed.
This is not an exaggeration. My own case was clearly ridiculous – I did all honors and AP classes, was heavily, heavily involved in Student Council, was the leader of multiple other groups, did 3 sports for two of my years, worked a part-time job for two years, competed on the Speech team each year (all day Saturdays for 3 months), I volunteered in my “spare time,” and I was chronically over-involved at church. How I survived is beyond me. I was working 85+ hours most weeks. But the original analysis was not of me. It was of a random, probably slightly under-performing, teenager.
For some reason we do not see student hours like adult hours. We think of students sitting at their desk, in their unfulfilling classes, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures all day… and we think this is different from adults sitting in their desk, at their unfulfilling job, exhausted, burnt out from listening to absurd lectures in meetings all day. No. They are the same. And students are even less able than adults to cope with high expectations and the ensuing stress.
American labor unions fought a hard-earned battle for the 40-hour work week, which led to new flourishing of family life and community engagement that had not been seen in America since before the Industrial Revolution. If, in another universe, we could cap student work weeks at 40 hours, what yet-unseen goods could our society gain? New social movements among teens, like a resurgence in the now-mostly-dead teen art culture? Would the emerging population of adults, ten years out, begin to perform better and more healthily at work? How would the next generation of young parents raise their kids, and what values of social participation in family and public life would be fostered in those kids? Speculation aside, I am sure that teen anxiety would no longer be the mammoth problem it is today.
The College Admissions System is the god of this age, and he has come to enter the temple of students’ very lives to desecrate what is most valuable, their time, by offering his sacrifice in them. He will sacrifice their friendships, their family, their schedule, even their mental health, to earn for himself the worship he demands. He knows no limits. He will rip out a teen’s proverbial throat and drink their proverbial blood. Will you, like the Maccabean Revolt of old, kill this god and wage war against his all-consuming, imperialist aims? By committing to a simplified, grace-filled lifestyle, you sign on to declare that the kingdom of this world is passing away with all its desires.
Your biology class lectures happen in an open field. Philosophy class is done while you rock climb. Your major classes are held during competitive team sports. While you practice archery, a professor explains how to write good thesis statements. Who knows the things you can learn about while white water rafting?
Can you imagine a college like this?
Everything is FUN!
Everything is EXCITING!
Nothing is BORING!
A professor told us about this school — supposedly real, though I don’t care enough to research where this college is located or if this characterization is accurate — in class one day. And my mind wandered to how awesome this school would be. How I would be so, so much more happy in this kind of environment than where I am now. But my professor took a different angle. One that has stuck with me.
He said, “You would be so bored, so fast. In a few weeks, you would be over it. College isn’t about entertaining yourself with fun activities; it’s about creating something.”
Yes! This is true… but I am bored, too. Normal college got so boring, so fast. It only took weeks for me to be over it. So maybe I’m making in my own life the mistake that Fun Outdoorsy School is making at an institutional level?
Question: what makes college so boring? Answer: that we aren’t creating anything, anything meaningful. Creative work is our original calling. God has created us to “image” him back to the creation. We do this by working and tending things in this world, ruling over and taking dominion of the created order.
Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …
2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. …
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
A task of ordering, shaping, dominating, tending, sorting, and ultimately, creating. It is only because of the Fall that this ordering, working, sorting task becomes tedious and painful. God curses humanity (represented by Adam):
3:17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
This curse applies to all people because Adam and Eve represented all people in this narrative. And so, we too feel the “thorns and thistles” of frustration, pain, suffering, and meaninglessness while we try to fulfill our calling from God to create. But it wasn’t meant to be this way! This is a diversion from the original purpose! We were made to “image” the glory of God in all that we do. And so this creative work is basic to finding meaning in life and to being fulfilled as a human being.
Another angle, less theology this time: Social Media has three types of people. Content Creators are the 1% of users who make and share new content of their own. Interactors are the next 9% who comment, like, or share other people’s content, but they don’t make things of their own. Lurkers are the next 90% who intake Content Creators’ work and Interactors’ interaction with that work, but do nothing with it besides see and enjoy it. They do not share, they do not comment, and they make nothing of their own.
Here are pictures.
The same thing is true in college. In high school you are a Lurker just intaking ideas and information. But college makes you start to Interact with ideas, critique them, argue about their merits, and share them with underclassmen who are starting to wade into the discussions. The ultimate goal is to make you a Content Creator, someone who knows enough about the topic to really contribute new work that other people can take in. This means you have to specialize in one thing, because a 22-year-old doesn’t have the knowledge to speak into more than one debate at a time. So you pick a major and start to work, and work, and work, until you can produce new, quality work of your own.
That’s the point of college. The more time you spend creating something, the less tedious and frustrating and boring it will be. Those classes you hate? They are so painful because you have decided they won’t help you in your creative project. Even if you aren’t sure what that project is, you have a sense, and this History of Chinese Politics class just ain’t it.
(It could be that the class really isn’t helpful, and Liberal Arts colleges suck. Or maybe you just have a bad attitude and refuse to see how the class will help. Probably both.)
All of college boils down to Neil Gaiman’s dictum, “Make Good Art.” But instead of art, it can be anything. Make good biology research. Make good athletic training preparation. Make good philosophy writing. But whatever you do — whatever you do — do not Lurk. Find meaning and fulfillment by doing what you are created to do: create.