Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Time to Blog and a Time to Move On

Being an astute reader, you have by now probably noticed that I am not writing very often. Life has become much busier for me and in the free time I have, I feel much less inclined to sit down and compose my thoughts for a blog post. I began blogging as a way to process what was going on in my life. I have undergone a lot of transition in my life over the past couple years and writing for my blog provided an outlet for the changes going on inside me. It also served as an avenue to speak about issues that had become important to me, or which I had finally identified as being important to me. At one point I believed I had something important to say, a voice that needed to be added to the many others already clamoring for attention.

But I have come to recognize that blogging is not my passion. It doesn't burn in my bones. Although many thoughts swirl around in my mind, rarely do I feel so strongly about something that I feel an urgent need to commit it to writing and share it with the world. I certainly still feel strongly about many issues, but there are other writers who are more articulate, more qualified and more dedicated to promoting those issues. You can look at my list of blogs I follow and things that interest me to get a good idea of what these are. In fact, if you aren't already following these writers, I'd encourage you to do so. You won't be disappointed.

I will still post here occasionally, as something particular weighs on my mind or heart. Thank you to all who have commented and read my blog over the months. I appreciate your interaction. There may come a time when I feel compelled to actively blog again, but in the meantime, this blog shall become the repository for my occasional random reflections on issues of significance to me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kissing the NFL Good-Bye

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my like-dislike relationship with the game of (American) football. After reading it a friend suggested I read a book entitled The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank. I've added it to my reading list but unfortunately my local library does not have a copy, so I will have to look elsewhere. About the same time the current issue of The Atlantic crossed my desk and I read a very interesting article in it: “How the NFL fleeces taxpayers,” written by Gregg Easterbrook. The article is adapted from Easterbrook's soon-to-be-released book The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America. I shall add this book to my reading list as well, but the article alone was enough to bring me to the conclusion that I need to withdraw my support from this league, if the reasons I listed in my previous post were not sufficient.

In the article Easterbrook describes how the NFL earns phenomenal profits for team owners and league executives while passing the cost of stadiums to the taxpayers in NFL cities. In an era of tight budgets and calls for decreased government spending, in a time when resources for the poor, for education and other truly useful services are being slashed by local and state governments, politicians continue to shovel largesse to private teams so that they won't move out of town. He cites numerous examples, all of which made me wonder why I should continue to give any support to this league. Why should taxpayers subsidize the Washington Redskins to the tune of $4 million dollars to upgrade their workout facility, when the team owner has an estimated net worth of $1 billion? Surely Virginia taxpayers could direct that $4 million towards more useful causes and $4 million out of Dan Snyder's $1 billion would hardly even make a noticeable dent.

The NFL is ultimately a business. It's about entertainment, but it's also about making money and it does that fantastically well. The league will receive about $4 billion dollars this season alone in broadcast rights. That's not counting ticket sales, merchandising and other sources of income. I have no bone to pick with the league and its teams for making money. If people want to pay for tickets and merchandise, if networks believe there is money to be earned in broadcasting the games, great. However, don't ask the taxpayers of Footballtown, America to pick up the bill for building, maintaining and upgrading the stadium that the teams use to earn their money. Teams should build their own stadiums. They could then choose to manage and lease them for other purposes as they see fit, earning additional income. This would be preferable to forcing communities to build these modern cathedrals, then paying them a pittance in rent to use them for their games.

In return for the stadium “rental” charges, teams receive in most if not all cases the exclusive right to revenues generated within the stadium, including ticket sales, concessions and, most importantly, revenue from the broadcast rights that go with each game. These sources of income far outweigh the rental fees the teams pay. When you factor in that the rental fees often don't cover the cost of actually constructing the stadium and paying off the debt for doing so, the teams essentially receive government subsidies to run their very lucrative businesses. I find it appalling that in a time when we hear politicians proclaiming the need to cut subsidies to the poor of our nation we continue to subsidize billionaire owners of sports teams. Something is seriously wrong with this equation.

I imagine someone will point to the economic “benefit” that sports teams bring to a city. Yes, they generate some jobs, but I wonder whether they truly generate enough local employment income, particularly jobs that pay a livable wage, to merit the subsidies they receive. For example, Louisiana gives up to $6 million a year to the owner of the New Orleans Saints as an “inducement payment” so he (hopefully) won't consider relocating the team. I would think that one could create a decent number of jobs in other ways for $6 million a year.

I am thankful that I do not live in a community with an NFL team, so I do not pay directly to support one through my taxes, although I do not have any idea whether and how much my state legislature has chosen to support the Arizona Cardinals with my tax money. I feel sorry for the taxpayers of Glendale, who get to pay for the shiny University of Phoenix stadium where the Cardinals play. (I think, to be fair, that they chose to tax themselves to build it, but I was not around at that time so I am not familiar with the details.) The residents of Tempe and Mesa should congratulate themselves on having the wisdom to reject efforts to construct the stadium in their cities.

The NFL will continue with or without my support. I don't even mind that they do. In fact I don't mind if they continue making money. But I do mind that they do so on the backs of taxpayers, when they do not need to do so. Team owners should take responsibility for the expenses of their teams and not expect taxpayers to subsidize them. Their earnings are more than adequate to pay for their stadiums and upgrades and whatever else they want. And if they aren't, then maybe they need to adjust their business model rather than blackmailing cities into pouring millions into their coffers. I don't expect them to change their ways, but until they do, I don't need to be an active contributor to their bottom line. I'm sure I can find better ways to spend my limited income—as well as my Sunday afternoons.

Friday, September 13, 2013

My Like-Dislike Relationship with American Football

 I have a like-dislike relationship with football these days (by which I mean American football). I won't call it a love-hate relationship because it's not that strong. I'm not passionate enough about football to feel that strongly one way or the other. I don't schedule my weekend around the football games I want to watch (although I have been known to schedule based on when a preferred soccer match will be on!) and I don't feel particularly heartbroken if I miss a game by one of the teams I support. However, I do enjoy sitting down on Sunday afternoon and watching a game, even if only absentmindedly while I read the paper or take an on-and-off nap. If I miss a game I do go online to see if my teams won or lost. I used to be much worse and the outcome of the weekend's games often affected my mood going into Monday morning. Given that my team at the time was the Kansas City Chiefs, that made for many a Monday with low spirits. These days I feel disappointed when my favorite teams lose, but I get on with life because I know there are far more important and interesting things in the world.

I am questioning more and more whether I can and should continue to support this sport, even in my relatively passive manner. Several issues prompt my doubt. The very nature of football promotes aggression and violence, albeit in a somewhat controlled manner. I don't object to the competitive nature of the sport. All sports are competitive in some degree. Someone wins and someone loses and within reason that's acceptable. But football isn't just about winning and losing. It's about the physical contact, the aggressive hits and the hard tackles. The fans want this kind of thing. Some have likened it to the Roman gladiatorial games. I don't know that it is quite that extreme, but the fans certainly experience some measure of catharsis watching the spectacle of crashing bodies on the field below (or the screen at home). We take part vicariously in the violence and in doing so, passively or actively celebrate and promote it. Do I really want to support an activity so fundamentally connected with aggression? I'm not sure I do anymore. I'm also not sure what it says about us and our society that we glory in this sport.

Even as we are enjoying the physical clash taking place on the field, those engaging in it are suffering bodily harm that in many cases will damage them for life. The indications that regular physical contact of this nature can result in long-term brain trauma seems fairly strong, strong enough that recently the NFL reached a settlement with a group of former players over the issue (without actually admitting any responsibility, conveniently). Some former players face debilitating brain injuries and some as a result have been driven to suicide. My enjoyment of their sport doesn't make me culpable in their injuries. Ultimately they are responsible for their choice to play and continue playing. But when I choose to watch, I help create the market that makes this sport financially rewarding and therefore help to perpetuate it. I realize that if I stop watching, the game will continue to be played, but my conscience need not bear the burden of supporting an activity that causes lasting harm to those who participate actively in it.

In addition to the issues related to violence and the physical harm the game brings, I am also disturbed by the sexism latent not only in the game itself but in the surrounding culture. I recognize that many women enjoy football and, in perhaps a paradoxical manner, am glad they do. Football shouldn't be the domain of only men as long as it continues to be played. Yet football (and related sports such as rugby) remains more male oriented than perhaps any other major sport. In other sports we see women's leagues being formed and growing. Although their popularity is not yet anywhere near that of the corresponding men's sport, we now have professional women's basketball and soccer. Women can play softball (although I fail to understand why they can't just play baseball), tennis, golf and even hockey. But women playing football remains a rare exception. On the one hand I would commend women for having the intelligence to avoid involvement in a sport that will, ultimately, harm them physically. At the same time the feminist in me revolts at the exclusion of women from this highly popular sport. And no, I don't count the lingerie football league as a true women's alternative. In fact, it's just another indicator of the underlying sexism in the sport. The only place we regularly find women involved in football at any level is on the sideline as cheerleaders. Without wanting to insult cheerleading, which can be a legitimate activity for both men and women (the fact that no NFL team I am aware of has male cheerleaders should tell us something), I find this very degrading to women. It insults me as a feminist and as a sports fan.

When you combine the exclusion of women from the game with the sexist attitudes that predominate in the advertising that fuels the football industry, it becomes apparent how women are viewed by a large portion of the football-watching world. Beer commercials, which provide a significant portion of sports revenue (I have no numbers on how much) regularly appall me with their blatant sexism (which, unfortunately, is not limited to commercials aired during football games, but that's a different topic.) As I said earlier, I fully affirm the right of women not only to watch but to play football. But I wonder why any woman wants to watch a sport that so fully excludes her from anything but observing and often reduces her to a sex-object to sell the sport and related products.

Finally, I question whether I want to support a sport that has come to pervert many educational institutions through corruption and scandal. I started reading today the article published by Sports Illustrated this week on the program at Oklahoma State University. I haven't even finished the article yet and already I am appalled. I would say I'm shocked, except that we have heard similar stories far too often in the past few years. It seems like every season we hear of another major university that, in the pursuit of football glory, has allowed and even fostered systems that promote winning over all else. Even programs that remain within the generous boundaries of NCAA rules still cause me to cringe when I read of the exorbitant amounts of money poured into them, even while academic programs at many universities struggle to find adequate funding. (I recognize that many athletic departments are effectively supported by their football program, but this does not necessarily make it right that so much money goes into football.) When we put so much significance on the success of a school's football program, we should not be surprised when rules are bent, ignored and broken in order to achieve that success. Do I want to support this system?

Yet even after saying all this I admit that I still enjoy a good football game. I still want to cheer for my alma-mater to beat the in-state and conference foes. In fact, somewhat ironically, I will be attending my first college football game this weekend for my father's birthday. I'm conflicted. I have a like-dislike relationship with this sport. My response at present will be to wean myself from watching football. I won't refuse to watch it if it's on, but I want to choose not to watch it when I have control of the remote. That won't be easy. It has become a sort of default behavior for me on Sunday afternoon over the years. But surely I can find better ways to invest my Sabbath day? I won't condemn or judge those who choose to watch football and cheer for their favorite teams, but I would encourage those of us who do to stop and think about what our support of this sport says about ourselves and our culture.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I Dance

I started learning to dance about two months ago. Not just any type of dance, mind you. I started to dance ballet—and I really enjoy it. It's been one of the most positive steps I've taken in recent years and I don't regret it despite the raised eyebrows and quizzical-critical comments I receive at times.

Why dance? And why ballet in particular?

Part of the answer is quite simple. I have realized that I am not getting any younger and that I need to consciously choose to remain active. I want to maintain my health at a level where I can continue to live a full life well into my later years. Given that my work has me sitting in front of a computer most of the day, I particularly need physical activity. I started running last fall and still run on occasion, but it has not become something I truly enjoy doing. Those pleasure-inducing endorphins or whatever it is that some runners experience have so far eluded me. I run because I know I need to, not because I enjoy it. More recently I tried doing Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) with my wife and son. We undertook this primarily to get our son involved in physical activity and to help him learn discipline, but for various reasons it didn't work out as well as we had hoped. I also struggled to reconcile my increasingly non-violent mindset with an activity that involves punching, hitting and kicking things (and people). Nor did I feel at home in the often testosterone-heave environment of the dojo. (Although I respect the owner of the dojo for his perspective and attitude.) So that fell by the wayside. I could have picked up yoga or pilates, but when I saw the sign outside the studio advertising ballet, I began to think that it might be fun to try something completely new.

The Semperoper Ballet, Dresden

Dancing ballet takes me way outside of my comfort zone. When I first considered joining the class I called the studio to inquire about it and the ballet teacher answered the phone. Her warm, positive encouragement was precisely what I needed to take the first step. Her continued encouragement and the welcoming atmosphere of the class helped me choose to continue. I am not by nature a big risk-taker. I don't like to put myself in positions where I feel awkward or uncomfortable. I don't like to try new things if I doubt my ability to succeed. I am not the most gifted person in the realm of physical coordination and strength, so undertaking something that requires both was a particularly bold move. However, in the past couple years I have put aside much of my innate hesitation and the fear that keeps me from expressing myself. Although not entirely free from such constraints, I don't worry as much as I used to about what others might think of me. This, combined with the positive support of my excellent teachers (I've now had a couple, both of them very good and very supportive), encouraged me to take this bold step.

Many guys give ballet a wide berth because they perceive it as an activity for girls and women. This didn't hinder me, because although it is a reality that more women dance ballet than men, men do are in fact an integral part of the ballet world. Nor do I pay much heed to traditional prescribed gender roles. Rather than causing me to hesitate about ballet, the fact that it crossed gender role boundaries—at least in the minds of many people—motivated me to do it. I'm not uncomfortable practicing with the women in the class. Nor am I bothered in the least to have women teaching. In fact I love the teachers I have—both of them great dancers and fantastic teachers. They and my fellow students have been a very welcoming, affirming community and I appreciate that very much.
This is definitely NOT me, although she is very beautifully posed.
(c) Suzanne Gonzalez

I dance ballet because I think it is an amazingly beautiful, graceful form of artistic expression. I would not have always said this. In the early years of our marriage my wife and I went to the ballet (The Nutcracker, I seem to recall) in Seattle and I was, quite honestly, rather bored by it. Later, while living in Russia, we had the opportunity to see several ballets at the world-famous Mariinskiy Theater in St. Petersburg. There I experienced the full power and beauty of ballet at its finest and I fell in love with it, although at the time I still would not have imagined myself trying to dance. I love the way that ballet combines beauty with control to powerfully express emotion. I am naturally quite reserved. I don't display emotional readily nor abundantly. I want to change this. I want to learn to express emotion more freely and ballet offers an avenue to do so, an avenue that combines this expression with beauty and grace.

I think I look more like this when dancing.
Actually, the hippo is probably better than I am,
but I'm learning!
I didn't know what to expect when I began ballet lessons. I certainly felt awkward and lacked confidence. I'm still pretty awkward, but I look forward to my lessons. They are very challenging and provide an incredible physical workout. At the same time they allow me to open up and express myself, releasing energy and emotion that are trapped inside. My current teacher Magda is particularly good at drawing us out, moving beyond simply learning the forms and positions to expressing ourselves through our movements. Sometimes I feel frustrated by my clumsiness or my inability to flex and stretch as much as I would like. But ballet has proven to be an excellent fit for me, a combination of physical activity with creative expression of beauty and grace that lifts my mind and body and refreshes me. I only wish I'd discovered it sooner.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Defining Modesty

Modesty has been a hot topic in some of my social circles of late, ever since this video began making the rounds. Many people, perhaps the majority among my friends, soundly affirmed the speaker and her commitment to modesty. They decried its demise in American and Western culture. I can understand that. After all, modesty seems like a very good and desirable quality. Who wouldn't want to affirm it?

However, after watching the video I felt disturbed. When I read this article I found that I agreed with the author's critiques. Among other things, in the rush to affirm modesty we miss that the speaker, Jessica Ray, is in fact marketing to us. She is promoting her line of swimwear and with it an understanding of what modesty looks like. And that's a significant problem, because who defines modesty? offers three definitions of modesty:

  1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
  2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
  3. simplicity, moderation

Most discussion of modesty these days focuses on the second definition, narrowing it even further to standards of dress. More specifically, the discussions focus almost exclusively on standards of dress for women. Those who advocate for a return to modesty generally have in mind some more conservative standard of attire, such as a rejection of bikinis, which is Ms. Rey's particular issue.

Yet the fundamental problem remains: Who defines what is modest? Standards of modesty change from one culture to another and within any given culture over a period of time. What one person considers quite modest might to another person be extremely immodest. As the author of the blog To Every One That Believeth points out, Ms. Rey's dress in her video would not meet modesty standards at BYU, although by other standards it is perfectly modest. Simply covering or exposing skin does not make a woman (or man) modest or immodest. No matter how one defines modesty, it will be too much for some and too little for others. Modesty is ultimately a subjective position. I am free to argue that I like or do not like a person's attire, but by what right do I proclaim that it is immodest and project my standard onto the other person? Even more so, by what right do I judge another person based on what she or he is wearing? (Let's admit that the conversation really comes down to what women wear and our judgment of women for that, because few people seem too concerned about what men are wearing. Guys can go around topless in many social contexts without fear of being labeled immodest and immoral, although I and probably many others would much prefer to not see their bare bellies.)

This leads to a second issue with the modesty debate. All too often advocates of modesty connect what a woman wears with what kind of person she is. A woman who wears a bikini, or bares her shoulders, or arms, or whatever is unacceptable according to the particular definition of modesty, is “obviously” a loose, immoral person. This may not always be stated explicitly, but it underlies much of modesty culture. Let's call this for the falsehood that it is. What you wear does not define what kind of person you are, and if others choose to define you based solely on your attire, then they are the ones in error.

Women are also encouraged to dress modestly for the sake of protecting their dignity and to avoid provoking the men around them to lustful thoughts and actions. In this way women become responsible for the actions of men, rather than men being responsible for their own actions. In Ms. Rey's video, she cites a study at Princeton which she uses to argue that men who see bare female flesh respond mentally in the same way they do to images of tools. In other words, they objectify women. Putting aside the significant flaws of the study, one very limited data sample does not conclusively demonstrate that men naturally respond as animals when seeing women's skin. When we put the burden on women to not provoke men by their attire, we say that men cannot be held responsible for their behavior and that they are incapable of acting differently. That's a low view of men and an unfair burden to place on women. When modesty becomes the means by which a woman must protect herself from inappropriate male behavior, then we have identified the wrong problem and the wrong solution. The problem is the behavior of men and the solution is for men to learn to view women as human beings and treat them accordingly. Instead, modesty allows men to continue to behave like cretins towards women and blames the women for this behavior. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

I find it interesting as well that the modesty discussion seems to ignore the other two definitions provided above. A modest person – male or female – should behave without vanity and boastfulness. A modest person should express simplicity and moderation. These go far beyond issues of how one dresses to one's very character. This may express itself in one's attire, but more significantly it will express itself in one's attitude and actions. As people of God we should all strive to live without vanity. We should all avoid boastfulness. Scripture says far more about these issues than it does about what one wears. And these standards apply equally to both men and women. I affirm modesty as a principle, but I cannot accept the way in which it has been hijacked lately to define a certain type of attire for women. I am working to see each person as a God-created unique individual and not judge them by what they are wearing, even if I do not personally find it tasteful or appealing. Ultimately people should be able to dress according to a standard that they feel comfortable with, not according to what someone else says is modest and decent. If you want to wear a one-piece bathing suit, I wholeheartedly affirm that. But if you prefer a bikini, than that is your choice as well and it is not my place to tell you otherwise.

On a final note, as a parent of two teenage children – one boy, one girl – I do believe that parents have a right and a responsibility to guide their children in their choice of clothing. But with that comes a responsibility to educate them, to help them develop their own identity and the ability to choose attire that accords with that identity. As parents we play such a formulative role in helping our children define their identity. I think a mistaken emphasis on a false standard of modesty may do more to skew that identity in unhealthy ways than to help them develop true, healthy modesty. I hope, and based on what I see I believe, that my wife and I have managed to achieve a decent balance in this regard.

Danielle, who blogs at From Two to One, did an excellent series on modesty. You'll find the first article in the series here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public Schools -- Learning to Live in a Diverse World

My children attend public schools and I am very glad about that. Public education is coming under increasing attack, particularly here in Arizona, where our state legislators seem determined to undermine the very foundations of public education. At the same time, many Christians seem intent on fleeing public schools in favor of private, Christian ones or of homeschooling. I am not opposed to either option and recognize that there are many factors that influence a family's decision about educating their children. But I think that we are wrong to abandon public schools, both as a nation and as Christians.

We did not plan or expect to have our children in public schools. Because of our work overseas, our children have mostly attended small schools for expatriate Christians, where class sizes were very small (our daughter had 10 children in her combined 4-6 grade class) and the worldview largely homegeneous. Even in those environments they did gain some multi-cultural exposure, as they often had classmates from several countries as well as living themselves in a cross-cultural situation. They also took classes on-line through a Christian internet school which offered high-quality classes, but in a largely homogeneous environment. Most of their classmates were from white, middle- to upper-middle class homes. Some, like our children, lived outside of their home countries, but most were simply homeschooled children in the United States. (In the interest of full disclosure, I now teach for that school and really enjoy the students with whom I work.) Prior to high school, the one year my children lived and went to school in the United States they both attended a local private Christian school. Although the school was good, it proved to be a less-than-ideal environment for our children, particularly our daughter. As a new junior high student she felt very much marginalized and out of place. Her classmates were from similar socio-economic backgrounds and lacked the multi-cultural perspective that our daughter had. Nor could they appreciate and affirm her uniqueness. This may be more because of their age than the school environment, but the lack of diversity in the school certainly left little place for someone to feel at home who was not just like everyone else.

Now my children are both in public high schools. Although our school district has some serious problems, I am comfortable that my children will receive a solid educational foundation that will equip them for life after high school. It certainly helps that my son attends one of the nation's best high schools, according to some rankings, while my daughter attends a good, though fairly average high school. But the quality of the academics is not the primary reason I am glad my children are in public school. In public school they learn to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our school district is, as they say, majority-minority, which means that more than 50% of the student population are not white. Every day at school my children are reminded that they live in a country that is growing increasingly diverse, one in which people who look like them will need to learn to work alongside people who don't look like them. My daughter's school is less so than my son's, but even though the socio-economic and ethnic diversity is not as great as we might wish, she still encounters a wide variety of worldviews. Neither of my children spend their school days in a Christian worldview bubble. And that's a good thing, because they are not going to live in a world where the majority of people accept an evangelical Christian worldview, or even a Judeo-Christian one. They must learn to interact with a broader world and they must choose what they believe and why and they might as well begin in high school. We can't keep them in a sheltered environment forever.

I want my children to be comfortable with the reality that people around them look and think differently than they do. I don't want them to view people as threats simply because they are different in some way. I want them to accept the wonderful diversity that is the United States. I want them to be comfortable with having a black, Hispanic, Asian or female president, and with having co-workers from all these and other backgrounds, because that's the future of this country. I don't want my children to think that white men should be the natural leaders or control the levers of power and influence, at least not simply by virtue of being white men. The world is changing. Our country is changing. By studying in public high schools, my children are learning to deal with that changing world better, I think than they would in a more homogeneous environment.

I could list other reasons that I affirm public education, both for my children and for society as a whole, but this to me is one of the key reasons we need to have public education. Rather than fleeing from public schools, rather than tearing them down either actively or passively, we need to recommit to supporting and developing them. As Christians we should do this not less, but more. Ultimately I recognize, as I said earlier, that each family must make their decision for their own reasons, but I would strongly encourage us to give serious thought to supporting public education. We want our children to be prepared to engage with a diverse world and public schools can help us do that well.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If God wills...

In a country where I lived and worked for several years one often heard the phrase “Khudo khohad,” which equates to the Arabic phrase “Insh Allah.” We could translate this phrase along the lines of “If it is God's will.” In the culture where I lived, this phrase was frequently used to absolve oneself of responsibility for planning or for the outcome of one's actions. After all, the individual is not really in control, so what does it matter what one does? If God wants it to happen it will. If he doesn't, it won't. End of story.

This attitude permeated the culture in many ways, resulting in a fatalistic worldview. Why should one plan or work toward a better tomorrow when the future lies beyond one's control anyway? Why feel accountable for one's actions when we know that all things are really in God's control and not our own. If something happened, it must be God's will. If it doesn't happen, it obviously wasn't. Other factors come into play in this particular cultural context which only sharpen the fatalism, because in many ways people really do lack control over their world. One man had worked hard to build a couple rooms on his house for his family, only to have the whole property taken from him by the government overnight and bulldozed to make way for a prestigious government project. Although he received some minor compensation, all his efforts to plan, work and save for his family were reduced to naught without any opportunity for him to counteract it. In such a world fatalism seems to be a realistic worldview, but it isn't a very helpful one.

This mindset is quite contrary to the Western worldview in which I was raised. American culture teaches us that we can change our lives, that we are in control of our destinies, that we can make a difference in the world. This mentality runs through many Protestant churches as well. But does it sync with the teachings of Scripture? What do we do with a passage like James 4:13-17.

Instead you ought to say: “If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.”

This sounds a lot like saying “Khudo khohad” to me. Should we as Christians in fact be fatalistic? Does the sovereignty of God render our activity pointless?

I have wrestled with the question a lot in my life, at times actively, at other times passively. I come from a Reformed theological background, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God. But I look at the world and find that God exercises this sovereignty in baffling ways, allowing things to occur that must surely grieve God's heart. Other Christians claim to see God's sovereign hand in natural disasters and other tragedies, claiming that they are God's punishment for certain sins. This mentality stems from an Old Testament worldview, but isn't entirely incompatible with a strong view of God's sovereignty. However, I cannot accept that God acts in this way. It strikes me as far to capricious and arbitrary (especially since these claims always seem to relate to certain types of sin. I've never heard anyone say that hurricane Katrina was the punishment for the greed and consumerism of Americans, for example.)

If we adopt too strong a view of sovereignty, we become passive chess pieces in some divine game. We may think we have a say in the course of the game, but we don't really. Or if we allow for some individual freedom but insist on God having a clear and decisive plan for each person's life, we can spend our energy worrying constantly whether we are in or out of God's will. I grew up with this mindset. I understood that my goal in life was to fulfill God's plan for it. I understood that this plan would be clear to me if I simply prayed and sought wisdom. But experience has shown that sometimes God's will is rather unclear. In fact, God's plan seems to me more like a broad directive than a specific agenda for each day, week, month or year. Before I worried that if I stepped outside of God's will, if I moved off that clearly defined path he had laid out for me, I would basically be trashing my life. Now I see God's will more like the markers that illuminate the edge of the highway. Yes, there are areas I don't want to go, but there is a broad swath of possibilities that are fully within “God's will.” And don't even get me going on the idea that God has a “perfect someone” for each of us to marry.

I keep running up against this question of God's sovereignty and the extent to which what I do really matters. I don't think Scripture teaches us to our actions and decisions have no real meaning. But can we change the course of events, or are all things so completely determined that our choices have no real significance? I would not want to live in such a world, nor would I consider such a God particularly worthy of worship. I don't think God wants us to be mere automatons.

Interestingly, I found a new way to think of this after watching the movie MiB3. (I must say that I never imagined having my theology influenced by Men in Black!) In that movie, agents K and J meet Griffin, a fifth-dimensional being who sees multiple timelines simultaneously. To Griffin, all futures are possible until the point that an event occurs which then eliminates some of them, while opening up new alternatives. Because Griffin exists multi-dimensionally, none of the outcomes is fixed or determined, but he can see all of them as real because he can see what would happen should any particular event occur. What if God is in some manner like Griffin, only more so? What if God's sovereignty doesn't mean that an exact course is already fixed for each of us, but that God knows the ultimate outcome (the full restoration and redemption of the creation) and in God's multi-dimensional existence can simultaneously see all possible paths to that endpoint, without dictating that any particular one of them should occur?

I find that I need room in my theology for my actions and decisions to count, so that my life has meaning beyond simply preparing me for some heavenly future. I don't believe that God created me and placed me in this world simply so I could learn some lessons in preparation for eternity. I believe God calls me, and all people, to be co-creators, or at least co-workers in the process of bringing the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. If one emphasizes too strongly God's sovereignty one can eliminate this element of human cooperation and render human life as a fully pre-determined set of events without real significance. One can also end up with a God who is distant and unmoved by the events of this world. Otherwise, surely God would act to rectify the injustices and sufferings of God's creation. If we believe that God does act, but through God's people without specifically compelling them to act, then we must allow room for flexibility in the working out of the divine will.

In a blog such as this I can only begin to touch on this deep topic. I have on my shelf a book I first read many years ago in seminary by Clark Pinnock and others entitled The Openness of God. This book caught my attention the first time I read it and it may be time for a second read. I know that it was not well received by many evangelical theologians because it directly challenges some long-held theological positions, but the questions the authors raise and the suggestions they make offer an alternative way to understand this tension between divine sovereignty and human action. If only Pinnock had had MiB3 to watch!

I have no nice conclusion to this post, because the issue remains open for me. I do not reject God's sovereignty, but I need to understand it in a way that allows for real, meaningful human action and freedom. I don't want to be reduced to saying “If God wills” and absolving myself from responsibility or action. On the other hand, I do want to recognize that my actions and plans still rest within the larger framework of God's actions in the world. That provides, as it were, a safety net, because I can have confidence that God remains in control even when I make the mistakes that I inevitably will.