Friday 29 May 2009

Faith and the imagination

In September 2008 Professor Trevor Hart from the University of St Andrews, Scotland presented the annual New College Lectures. New College is the home of CASE. In a series of three lectures Professor Hart set out to examine the place of artistic creation. He offered a theology of human artistry, an account that in his words “takes seriously Christian Scripture and Creeds”. He asked the question can we hold together talk of human creativity and “God’s unique identity as the originator and gracious giver of being and life to the world”? This he suggested is not a question of if but of how? We need he suggested to disentangle from one another these two ‘modalities of creativity’, both of which are to do with God’s relationship to the world, but only one of which incorporates human agency.

You can download all three of Professor Hart's lectures as MP3 files as well as viewing a series of short videos produced by the Centre for Public Christianity while Professor Hart was here to present the lectures (here).

In the first of the videos below Professor Hart discusses with Greg Clarke the role that the imagination plays in our experience of God and faith. He argues that there is a significant difference between the 'imaginary' and 'imagination'. Imagination he suggests is "the capacity to picture things not present to us in our senses", and can help us to understand God and to gain greater insights into his reality. He also offers some brief reflections on the role of the imagination in science.

Related links

You can access four separate short videos on this topic plus MP3 downloads of all three lectures that Professor Hart delivered in 2008 at New College (here).

Previous blog posts on the Hart series of lectures:

God and the Artist - Part 1

God and the Artist - Part 2

God and the Artist - Part 3

Saturday 23 May 2009

The disappearance of mutual respect

A sorry saga

In Australia over the last week or so the big story (especially in the tabloids) has been a series of scandals facing a football club, the Cronulla Sharks Rugby League club. I won’t bore everyone with all the sordid details, but it would be helpful for international readers to know the details of one incident that involved a high profile former rugby league star who is now a very high profile television commentator (here). As part of the ongoing story of male sexual abuse and exploitation of young women, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s program Four Corners exposed the details of an incident that had occurred in New Zealand some seven years ago in which it was alleged that a high profile footballer (Matthew Johns) and an unclear number of team mates (possibly as many as nine), were involved in sexual activities with a 19 year old woman in their team hotel. While the woman had gone willingly with the men to their room and appears to have consented to a sex act with at least two of the men, it is alleged that matters got out of hand. Police had investigated the matter and no charges were laid.

The response from the community has been varied and at times confusing. Many have been supportive of Johns pointing to the fact that there were no charges and that the woman appeared to have consented to the activities, that a workmate in recent times had gone public and claimed that the woman boasted about the event later rather than being traumatised. Just as many were quick to call for Johns to be sacked as a television host (and he has been) and see it as an example of football players showing no respect for women and using their fame to exploit them for their own sexual gratification. Others have pointed to the need for the game to clean up its image noting (for example) that the use of scantily clad cheerleaders was degrading to woman and simply fed a culture of exploitation of women. A small number have bravely pointed to the young woman’s actions, asking the question, but “why would a 19 year old woman go alone to a hotel with a football team and then invite at least two into a room with her for consensual sex?”

Dignity for manhood and womanhood

The discussion in the media highlighted has highlighted for me the gulf between community standards of behaviour and biblical teaching on how men and women should relate to one another.

John Piper preached a sermon some 20 years ago titled ‘Manhood and Womanhood: Conflict and Confusion After the Fall’ in which he discussed the Bibles teaching that as a consequence of sin there is confusion between the roles of man and woman:

“Maleness as God created it has been depraved and corrupted by sin. Femaleness as God created it has been depraved and corrupted by sin. The essence of sin is self-reliance and self-exaltation. First in rebellion against God, and then in exploitation of each other. So the essence of corrupted maleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit women for its own private desires. And the essence of corrupted femaleness is the self-aggrandizing effort to subdue and control and exploit men for its own private desires. And the difference is found mainly in the different weaknesses that we can exploit in one another.”

God gave woman to man to live in relationship to him. This relationship is meant to:
  • Reflect equality of personhood in the sight of God, with equality of dignity (1 Peter 2:17; 1 Tim 5:1)
  • Be based on mutual respect where each tries to honour not exploit the other
  • Be a life of harmony as men and women work together for each other’s good
  • Demonstrate a complementarity that respects the differences between man and woman and affirms and values them.
This is still God's expectation in spite of the corruption of sin. But how far western society has drifted from the Bible’s picture of men and women living with mutual respect for one another.

The point of this post is not to lament the actual incident, but simply to ask two (of many) questions I’ve had rattling around in my head as I’ve reflected on the matter.

What is it that creates a large proportion of young men who think that women are simply sexual objects to be exploited and used for their own pleasure and purposes?

We could answer with ‘sin’, but how is this operating in ordinary lives, and why do things seem worse than before? In one sense, young men are no different now than at any time in history. As always, as men move into puberty they begin a stage of sexual inquisitiveness, a search for their identity and desire to know how they should relate to young women as they pass from being boys to being men. The media’s coverage of the football saga has been all about cracking down on young footballers, of tougher rules, of no alcohol during the season, of minders etc. These are just bandaids which while perhaps useful, would have no impact on the root cause. It is in the first 12 years of life (before puberty) that attitudes to girls and the right way to treat them should be developed in families. Once puberty is reached every young boy needs strong male role models who can help them to work out who they are and how they relate to young women. They also need to see right models of young women relating to young men. It is primarily in the home that they should learn about these things. But how do they learn these things? In lots of simple ways, for example:
  • In the way men relate to their wives and other women in their lives.
  • In the television programs that we permit our young men to watch and the books and magazines that we allow them to read.
  • In the unbridled access we allow to the Internet and gaming and the values that they reinforce.
  • In the music and video clips that we allow them to listen to and watch.
  • In the friends they keep and our lack of scrutiny of their activities.
  • In the lessons we teach them about alcohol use or abuse.
  • In the examples that male teachers, football coaches, and community leaders of all kinds set for young boys.

The above comments beg the question, what if there isn’t a male in the house? It becomes harder, but that’s where in communities we should be prepared to share responsibility for other people’s children (see my previous post on 'Loving your neighbour's children' here).

Why are many young women prepared to tolerate the behaviour of these young men and actually place themselves in positions of subjugation?

My second question may well lead to some protests and the claim that I’m blaming victims, but I’m not trying to do that. I’ve been working with young adults for over 30 years as a university academic and head of a residential college and so have observed at close hand the behaviour of young men and women. I’ve been shocked in the last decade or so at the extent to which young women have been prepared to accept behaviour, language and attitudes that previous generations would never have permitted. Young women do have to take some responsibility for their own actions; they can say no, and they can say 'don't act towards me like that'. And yet, young women receive so many messages that their value is judged by their attractiveness to men, that their identity and worth is often judged by the extent to which men want them. It is not surprising how desperate some women are to attract male attention. How do young women learn these things?

I think the answer is similar to that for young men, in the first 10-12 years of life. As young women reach puberty they too need strong role models both male and female to help them to understand how they should relate to young men. Again we set the patterns at home in many ways. To a large extent the ways we do it are just the same as for young boys: the models we set, the access we allow to TV, videos, Internet, magazines, but also the way we dress them and begin to almost make objects of desire with bras at 8 years and make-up even earlier.

For girls, the pressure is even greater than for boys, as they are constantly bombarded with images from advertising, television, magazine and the internet that seek to portray the ideal women in looks and behaviour. As with boys, parents, teachers and others with leadership roles need to set rules and boundaries that we encourage them not to cross. In the years of puberty boys and girls will constantly test us and they will be looking for us to help them judge what is right and wrong. As they try to work out who they are they do want our help, even when at times it doesn't seem like it. Maintaining strong relationships in these critical years is vital if parents don’t want the major influence in their teenagers’ lives to be their friends and the images of popular culture that constantly bombard them.

The time families spend together and the things they do matter. Does it matter (for example) if the family sits down to watch ‘Big Brother’ together? Yes it does, for it provides one model, which we endorse through our actions of what it is to be a man or woman, and offers an insight into what some young people value. It’s a series of very small steps from the attitude and behaviours of the people in such a program to the type of behaviour that we’ve seen demonstrated by the high profile footballers in Sydney, and sadly, even the behaviour of some of the women that they prey on.

Joan Jacob Brumberg (1997) in her book ‘The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls’ offers this key insight:

“Contemporary girls seem to have more autonomy, but their freedom is laced with peril. Despite sophisticated packaging, many remain emotionally immature, and that makes it all the more difficult to withstand the sexually brutal and commercially rapacious society in which they grow up” (p.197)
Young men and women today are pursing a freedom which is simply a form of slavery. The Bible teaches that true freedom can only come through a relationship with Christ. Becoming a disciple of Christ is an act of self-surrender; self-surrender leads inevitably to slavery; and slavery demands a total, radical, exclusive obedience. Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:17-18)

Rather than being a slave to the world and self, we can serve the living God. And the wonderful thing about serving God is that we are free to be the people we were designed to be, not those that the world is trying to convince us to become. And this is true freedom, for as Jesus taught:

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).

Advice to parents

In world hostile to some of the values that the average reader of this blog would hold, good parenting is critical. I wasn’t perfect as a father but I was available and involved and I was prepared to set rules and boundaries and work with my wife to help our daughters negotiate the tricky waters of the teenage years. No they wouldn’t be going to any party where there was alcohol under the age of 18. No there wouldn’t be a ‘Dolly’ magazine in our house. “No you can’t watch that program on TV” etc. Sometimes this was very hard, but as a Dad (with Carmen their Mum) I was determined to set clear boundaries. All the time we were setting limits and rules we were striving to keep our relationship strong and open so that they would want to ask us tough questions which God willing we could answer wisely. Sound biblical teaching needs to drive this of course, and active involvement in church, youth groups (with strong teenage models as leaders) etc. Above all else, we wanted our children to grow in their knowledge of Christ and to commit their lives to following him.

It is a difficult time to be raising teenage girls and boys, parents need to reflect on their roles, the messages they send to their children and the attitudes, behaviour and values that they promote often unwittingly. It seems difficult to fight against the disappearance of mutual respect, but we share collective responsibility to fight against its demise and the fight starts in our own families.

Related Links

Women’s Forum Australia has some wonderful material that deals with issues facing women today, research on body image and female sexuality (here). The magazine opposite is a wonderful collection of short pieces on the challenges facing young women today.

John Piper's sermon ‘Manhood and Womanhood: Conflict and Confusion After the Fall’ (here)

New Zealander Celia Lashlie has written a book about how to raise good men. You can listen to an excellent radio interview with her recently. This is an interesting perspective from a non-Christian with much wisdom that we can learn from (here). Her book 'He'll be ok: Growing gorgeous boys into good men' would be invaluable for parents with rebellious teenage boys (here)

Thursday 7 May 2009

The Soul in Cyberspace: Wisdom from Groothius

Some will have read my previous posts on the Internet and its potential impact on our lives: 'Is the Internet dumbing us down? 2 Rite!' (here), 'Are bloggers robbing their employers?' (here) and 'Writing, communication and relationships' (here).

You can read an excellent interview by Tim Challies with Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) who wrote The Soul in Cyberspace (published in 1997). In the interview Challies asked Groothuis to revisit the key arguments of his book. In particular he asked him to revisit his concern expressed way back in 1997, that cyberspace was taking the place of 'real', face-to-face human contact. His book was many years before Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogging and many other applications that keep us busy online. The following quote struck me as particularly relevant for our age:

"But overall cyberspace (and hardly anyone calls it this any more) has diminished community if one means by that embodied relationships bound by troth, friendship, citizenship, and physical proximity. People practice an “absent presence” constantly as they talk on cell phones while checking out at the supermarket or at Starbucks, as they send text messages during classes instead of attending to teachers and students, as they play video games instead of getting to know their spouses and children. One could go on."

Ouch! This goes to the very heart of the way electronic communication has changed our world. How many of us could claim that we have never found themselves being absently present due to technology? How many of us have checked emails, Facebook and other online sites while talking on the phone? How many check emails and SMS messages on their phone when they should be in a conversation with friends, family members or workmates? I've even seen people checking messages during church services. It is difficult to assess the level of impact that technology has on our lives, but it seems likely that it is having an impact on relationships within and outside families. It also seems that our level of dependence, which verges on addiction for some, can have very negative impacts. It is easy to dress up the level of our distraction due to technology and call it other things. We can even praise it as multiskilling, and we could point to other distractions in life that affect relationships. But the truth is that our growing obsession with electronic communication is a problem and that technology, particularly the Internet, is having an impact on our relationships.

What to do about it is the question? For anyone who does find that technology has an impact on their relationships there are choices that we can make that will limit the impact. Here are a few rules I apply to myself:
  • I try not to read emails at weekends
  • I turn my phone off, or put it on silent when in meetings, when out with my wife etc
  • I have set times for blogging and try to limit the hours that it takes (choose end times)
  • I limit the number of blog posts I write and the number of blogs I read
  • I limit the use of social networking sites. I'm on Facebook but I use it for very limited purposes
  • I try to avoid answering my mobile when playing with my grandchildren
  • I don't email someone when a phone call or face-to-face meeting is possible and better
I don't offer these as relevant for anyone other than myself. For each of us I suspect we know which forms of technology have the greatest potential to affect our relationships. We need to be wise in how we identify our weaknesses and then act. I know how easy it is to be absently present when I have things on my mind, let alone when technology is buzzing and blinking at me all day long.

You can read the entire interview here.

Friday 1 May 2009

Is the Internet dumbing us down? 2 rite!

I'm a 57 year old academic who has always been an early adopter of technology. I bought my first personal computer in 1982, I began using email as a replacement for letters and memos 20 years ago, I currently write three blogs, maintain my own website, and yes, have even been dragged (kicking and screaming!) by the residents of New College Village to join Facebook. So don't dismiss my comments as those of a technological Luddite. I love the Internet and use it many times almost every day.

But like many people I face the daily challenge of making sure that there is balance in my life, that blogging doesn't move from being a useful and stimulating way to learn and communicate ideas, and instead become a new form of addiction that harms my relationships and diverts me from more substantial and important activities. I have concerns that arise from my academic work in language development (here) about the impact of the Internet on people's lives and our ability to learn, think, read and write. But this post isn't arguing against the Internet and its many applications for communication, it is simply sharing my concerns and those of others about its application and misuse.

Concerns about the Internet

There have been a number of people who have questioned the Internet's impact on us in recent times. In an article in The Atlantic (here) Nicholas Carr asks, "Is the Internet making us stupid?" He comments:

....what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

We already know that online reading is different (see my post on this topic here), that we scan the screen in different ways and spend much less time reading single texts online than when we read books. In other words, we read quickly and in more shallow ways rather than engaging in close 'deep' reading (I've probably lost some of you already). But beyond simply being a different way to read, could the extent to which we read and write online have a negative impact on us as readers and learners? While the jury is still out, some researchers think so.

For example, Mokoto Rich (Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?) points to evidence from Neurological studies that show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. As well, there is more recent speculation that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading. Dr Guinevere Eden director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, acknowledges that this is probably occurring and suggests that:

The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way? The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment. Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it.

There are many claims that people are reading less substantial texts and writing less extended texts. Robert Fisk amusingly claims "everyone wants to be an author but no-one is reading books". He is a basic technology user but curses its impact on him and others:

I blame technology. The internet, email – neither of which I use – and the accursed laptop. I curse the laptop for two reasons. Firstly because I use it. Secondly because it encourages hopeless authorship. It's not that everyone with a laptop thinks they can write a book. The problem is that everyone with a laptop does write a book. They arrive by the dozen, in my Beirut mail bag, unsolicited on my Beirut doorstep, in my European mail. A few are brilliant. Most are awful. They are packed with misspellings, bad grammar and often pseudo-anthropological jargon.

I guess I'd add, and if people aren't writing books they're writing blogs, sending constant SMS messages or even sending constant 'tweets' via Twitter. This might in many cases be good, but for some it may well be unhelpful.

I wrote a post on 'Twitter' about a year ago on my 'Literacy, families and learning' blog (here). At the time I was horrified to think that we might be heading towards an even more banal form of social networking. Twitter seems to reduce communication to the sending of short, often poorly written, trivial texts that we expect others to read. For the uninitiated, Twitter is one of a number of microblogging tools that ask users to tell friends what they’re doing in 140 characters or less. It's a social networking service that allows users to send updates (known as ‘tweets’) that are text-based posts to their friends or strangers for that matter.

While I can see why some of my academic colleagues would welcome the prospect of young people writing constantly to one another and the fostering of the ability to write precise texts, it's difficult to see much that is good about Twitter. If you think Carr was tough on the Internet, this is what he says about Twitter:

And what exactly are we broadcasting? The minutiae of our lives. The moment-by-moment answer to what is, in Twitterland, the most important question in the world: What are you doing? Or, to save four characters: What you doing? Twitter is the telegraph of Narcissus. Not only are you the star of the show, but everything that happens to you, no matter how trifling, is a headline, a media event, a stop-the-presses bulletin. Quicksilver turns to amber.

Maybe this is a bit harsh, I’m prepared to accept that Twitter might just be a useful networking tool for some people. It might help some to keep in touch easily while they are doing other things. But I'm confident that it has greater potential to do harm than good for some people.

Three general concerns

Let me preface my concerns by stating once again that the Internet isn't the problem, it's what we do with it that matters. For example, I'd offer the observation that some of the people I know who are very active users of the Internet are also well read and they write extended texts for publication in non-online publications. But while I welcome the Internet and just about every new clever way we are creatively applying it for learning and communication, I have three key concerns:

Is it 'real' communication? Social networking can lead to very selfish forms of communication, indeed, some forms hardly seem communication at all. To send a tweet in the hope that friends might read it is not to communicate. To post the news that you've just been engaged on Facebook is not communication. Communication requires more than the act of sending or posting information in cyberspace in the hope that others might stumble upon it. Social communication should be an extension of our relationships. Hopefully, we send or share information with others with whom we have a relationship; people who we hope will receive the communication and respond. Far too much web-based communication seems to be about telling others about oneself.

Does it waste too much time? The Internet and in particular social networking and blogging, is soaking up so much of our time that it could be at the expense of other relationships and responsibilities. I wrote recently on this blog and asked the question "might bloggers be robbing their employers (here) of time by blogging at work?" I could extend this question. Might we be robbing our family of time? Might we be engaging in social networking at the expense of the development of a small number of significant relationships? Do we spend so much time online that we don't have time to phone or visit friends, family or neighbours? In fact, how might we be robbing God of time?

Could all this online work affect us as readers, writers and learners? Because the Internet requires a different way of 'reading', might it be changing the way we think? At the very least, might it be adversely affecting our literacy habits? Might it be diverting us from 'deep' reading of substantial texts? Could it be making us proficient at writing blog posts that don't exceed 800 words and messages that don't exceed 160 (or 140 for Twitter) at the expense of other forms of writing that have more lasting value? It is not the Internet that is at fault here, but the forms of writing and reading that it might encourage to excess. I can recall how deskilled I felt when I finished a stint as Dean of a University faculty in the 1990s. In the role I dictated and wrote 20+ memos each day and attended countless meetings. When I went on sabbatical leave at the end of my term to write for 6 months, it took the best part of three months to re-train myself in basic scholarship, to be able to read for sustained periods, and to write long and substantial texts. I see blogging, Facebook, Twitter and so on, as having the potential to do the same thing.

They above are my worried thoughts, I'd welcome your responses if you've made it this far.

Related links

'Twitter dot dash', Nicholas Carr (here)

'Writing, communication and technology' (here)

'Online reading is different' (here)

'The impact of new media on children' (here)