Unprotected


 

Anonymous, M.D., Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student (New York: Sentinel, 2006).
 
The student newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara (my home town) is called the Daily Nexus. Once a week, it runs a student-written column called with the “Wednesday Hump.” Recent columns addressed anal sex, animal fetishes, fellatio, girls kissing girls, group sex, sexually transmitted diseases, virginity, and—well, it’s a veritable A through Z of sexual immorality. No wonder UCSB is informally known as the University of Casual Sex and Beer.
 
My guess is that the paper’s sex columnists haven’t read Unprotected by Anonymous, M.D. (It was published when they were freshmen.) Which is a shame, for the book exposes the mental health problems that often affect students—especially women—caught up in the hookup culture of the modern university campus. Sadly, the health centers on those campuses often aid and abet this hookup culture, rather than providing sound medical and psychological advice.
 
Not long after Unprotected was published, Anonymous, M.D., outed herself on the Dr. Laura Show as Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist at UCLA’s student counseling center. Each chapter in her book begins with an anecdote about a student whom she has counseled (names have been changed to protect privacy, of course), then segues into a larger discussion of the physical and emotional consequences of casual sex. Most of the anecdotes involve young women, but a few involve young men as well. The research behind the physical and emotional consequences of casual sex is documented in the footnotes. Finally, each chapter points out how campus health information often ignores or downplays this well-known medical and psychological information.
 
What are some of the specific consequences Grossman addresses?
 
  • How human papilloma virus (HPV) and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) affect young women (chapter 2)
  • How medical professionals treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) differently than they treat other public health crises (chapter 3)
  • How public health information about the transmission of HIV among heterosexuals is misleading and unnecessarily panic-inducing (chapter 4)
  • How abortion can cause short- and long-term emotional problems for some women (chapter 5)
  • How chlamydia—the most common STD–can reduce a woman’s chance of having children (chapter 6)
  • How delaying childbirth into late adulthood reduces the likelihood that a woman will have a child (chapter 7)
 
Despite these well-known consequences, campus health professionals openly promote experimentation—as long as condoms are used, of course—and openly criticize judgmentalism toward other people’s sexual choices. For Grossman, this is “political correctness” run amok. Modern thinking about sexuality, reflected in how campus health professionals deal with student sex, is technical rather than moral. That is, it asks, “How do I have the best sex possible with the fewest unpleasant side effects?” A moral perspective on sex would ask, “What is larger purpose of sexuality, and does a casual sex culture achieve this purpose?” Campus health professionals push condoms, condoms, condoms. But as Grossman wryly notes, “there is no condom for the heart.”
 
Criticisms of Grossman’s book seem to center around two issues: First, she’s creating a moral panic, as if every sexual encounter results in depression and disease. I think this criticism is misguided. Grossman’s point is that in a casual-sex campus environment, there is enough depression and disease for campus health professionals to start questioning their all-too-easy support for the notion that sexual experimentation is essentially harmless.
 
Second, critics say, Grossman is trying to turn back the clock on women. When Grossman warns how HPV and Chlamydia can negatively affect a woman’s future childbearing chances, critics say that she’s scaring professional women away from fulfilling careers. When she warns that abortion may be emotionally damaging to some women, critics say she’s scaring them off from an essential part of reproductive freedom. And when she warns that delaying childbearing for the sake of a career may make it harder to have kids later in life, she’s again implicitly criticizing the notion of professional working women.
 
To be perfectly honest, this second set of criticisms more or less proves Grossman’s point, doesn’t it? Sexually transmitted diseases can negatively affect childbearing capacity in some women. Abortion can cause depression in some women. Forty-something professional women who decide to have a kid find it’s not necessarily easy. These are factual assertions. Grossman’s critics offer political answers.

(And it’s not even that Grossman disagrees with aspects of those answers. This is not a brief for the little missus in the kitchen while the breadwinner goes off to his job in the big city. Grossman is a professional woman, after all. She’s simply trying to answer questions raised by her patients, some of whom are grad students who delayed childbearing for career and find themselves unhappy with a career but no kids. Shouldn’t a mental health professional at least deal with that apparently common problem?)

 
Which brings us back to the moral question I mentioned earlier. What is the larger purpose of sexuality? How does it contribute to human flourishing? How does it form and sustain human community? These, it seems to me, are the important questions that Grossman wants us to ask. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of the “Wednesday Hump” columnists asking them. Then again, college students aren’t exactly known for long-term thinking.

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It’s Really All About God


 

Samir Selmanovic, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). $24.95, 320 pages.
 
The older I get, the more I find myself using the phrases, “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” Age, experience, and continued education have taught me that there is more than one way to see and do things.
 
These things have not made me agnostic about finding truth, however, as if contradictory hands canceled each other out. Rather, they have had the effect of winnowing my beliefs and behaviors, of distinguishing between what is peripheral and core to my way of life.
 
As I age, then, I find myself worrying less and less about the periphery and more and more about the core, especially when it comes to my religion, which unifies who I am with what I believe and how I behave. Not to beat about the bush, I am a Christian, and this shapes my identity.
 
For others, their religion—or lack of it—similarly shapes their identities. For every person who, like me, is a Christian, there is another who is a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist. Our religions, or in the case of atheists—our ideologies, shape who we are, including who we are in the presence of one another.
 
Typically, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists have viewed their religious and ideological stances in zero-sum terms. If Judaism is true, atheism is not; for how can God be One if God does not even exist? Or if Christianity is true, Islam is not; for how can Jesus Christ be God’s Son if God has no companions?
 
On top of this typically exclusivist stance, historically speaking, religions and ideologies that have had a monopoly or even a majority of power have tended to privilege themselves at the expense of the others. Israel displaced the Canaanites. Christendom persecuted Jews and Muslims. Islam reduced Jews and Christians to dhimmi status. Atheist states persecuted the faithful of all religions.
 
It is the conjunction of exclusivism and power that worries many, including Samir Selmanovic, author of It’s Really All About God. Selmanovic was born into a conventionally Muslim Croat family; educated by the atheist Yugoslav state and conscripted by its army; and converted into a Seventh-Day Adventist faith, with that denomination’s unique blend of Christian beliefs and Jewish practices. Hence the subtitle of his book: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.
 
The subtitle is not merely autobiographical, however—outlining the stages of Selmanovic’s spiritual evolution. Rather, it describes the thesis of his book: Religions have become “God management systems” that hinder rather than promote life and love, so we must rid ourselves of exclusivism and “find God in the other.”
 
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a form of Christian theological reasoning that takes Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as its norms. For Christians, Scripture is the “norming norm,” the ultimate authority, while tradition, reason, and experience are “normed norms,” real but nonetheless subordinate authorities. From my vantage point, something similar to the Quadrilateral is at work in the interplay between Tanakh and Talmud in Judaism and Koran and Hadith in Islam.
 
Selmanovic is a Christian, but it seems to me that he displaces Scripture with experience as the norming norm, and not merely in Christianity but also in Judaism and Islam. Like some Mystics in all three religions, Selmanovic sees life and love as the experiential kernel of all religions, around which contradictory scriptures and religious traditions are merely husks. When Jews use Tanakh and Talmud, Christians the New Testament and the ecumenical councils, or Muslims the Koran and Hadith to override this concern for life and love, they have become “God management systems” that must be opposed.
 
As a Christian, I have a measure of sympathy for this argument. Formally speaking, it is similar to the argument Jesus made against the Pharisees, who emphasized the niggling details of the Law at the expense of practicing its weightier concerns, namely, justice and mercy. Materially speaking, however, I cannot agree with Selmanovic for the simple reason that to do so would be to cease being a Christian (or Jew, Muslim, or atheist) in any meaningful sense.
 
What do I mean? Selmanovic is insistent that we must find God in the other. By that, he means—if you are Christian—the Jew, the Muslim, and the atheist. No religion has a monopoly of truth on God, in his estimation. Therefore, God can be found in these other religions or ideologies and their practitioners.
 
But if you look at the scriptures and traditions of these religions and ideologies, you find that they contradict one another. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that God exists; atheism denies it. Judaism and Islam are Unitarian; Christianity is Trinitarian. Christianity teaches that Jesus is the eternally divine Son of God; Judaism and Islam deny it.
 
Selmanovic doesn’t deal with these contradictory beliefs, which go to the core doctrines of the respective faiths. Instead, he assigns them to the peripheral and therefore expendable. The mystical experience of God, the practical commitment to life and love, render these doctrinal differences a distraction in Selmanovic’s account.
 
All of which means, paradoxically, that Selmanovic has failed to find God in the other because he has failed to treat the religions as truly other. This is a common failing of both mystical theology and pluralism, both of which treat doctrinal differences as disputes about words that mask deeper experiential unities. But what if those doctrinal differences are enduring because they reflect and generate different experiential realities? What is life and love have different meanings in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and atheism because their respective belief systems and authoritative narratives interpret those words in fundamentally exclusive ways?
 
Not only has Selmanovic failed to treat the religions as truly other, it seems to me that he has failed to treat God as Truly Other. Selmanovic seems to assign the scriptures of the various religions to their humanly generated God management systems. In other words, to speak as a Christian, it seems to me that Selmanovic denies the possibility that the Bible is a genuine revelation by God to us whose narratives, teachings, and law are authoritative. (Although I am a Christian, I think the same point of critique could be made by a Jew or Muslim.) If exclusivistic doctrines arise from humanly generated God management systems, they can be put down by humans too. But what if exclusivistic doctrines arise from authentic self-revelation by God? Wouldn’t Selmanovic need to change his thesis accordingly?
 
This critique isn’t to say that Selmanovic doesn’t score a good many points by way of critique in this book. At numerous points, I found myself nodding my head at his critiques of my pride, my desire for power and bigness, and my failure to listen to those who do not share my faith. Not only that, I agreed with his strong emphasis on religion as a way of life. Finally, one of the most challenging parts of the book was where Selmanovic simply contrasted what Jesus offered the masses with what we seeker-sensitive preachers promise them. If Selmanovic prompts other to get right with Jesus in these regards, his book will have served a useful purpose.
 
Other than that, however, I can’t recommend the book. I find the displacement of core Christian doctrine both to be heterodox and, ironically enough, to fall short of Selmanovic’s goal of finding God in the other.

This Is No Picnic for Me Either, Buster


President Obama will speechify to K-12 students tomorrow.

Some conservatives have accused the president of attempting to indoctrinate students. I think that’s a bogus criticism, and if you read the speech, I think you’ll agree. It’s boring.

My problem was with the initial Department of Education suggested lesson plans for kids who watch the speech. One suggestion was to ask the students how they could help the president. My suggestion? Tell him to leave the country well enough alone. I doubt that’s the kind of help the president is seeking, however. Thankfully, the D of E revised that suggested lesson plan.

A couple of lines stood out to me: “We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.” You’re quitting on your country? Is the president accusing bad students of being…unpatriotic?

Or how about this one: “And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country. The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.” Uh, I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but I found this statement more than little bit creepy. When you give up on yourself, you give up on your country? Surely our beloved president jests…

My favorite line was a personal story the president told about his mother tutoring him at 4:30 a.m. When he complained, his mother said: “This is no picnic for me either, buster.” After reading this speech, I know how she must’ve felt.

Here’s a link to the speech: http://www.whitehouse.gov/MediaResources/PreparedSchoolRemarks/

Imagination First


Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, Imagination First: How to Unlock the Power of Possibility (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). $24.95, 240 pages.

Imagination First is two books in one. The first is a field manual of practices that will stimulate imagination. The second is an argument about how imagination will change the world. I found the first to be both insightful and helpful; I found the second to be an exercise in swishy thinking.

As a field manual of imaginogenic practices—I just used my imagination to create that word!—Imagination First succeeds admirably. Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon have surveyed the literature, both academic and practical, and come up with excellent suggestions for how to routinize the process of imagination, both individually and corporately.

Liu and Nappe-Brandon define imagination as “the capacity to conceive of what is not.” Human beings are hardwired both to perceive what is and to conceive of what if. Over time, however, our capacity to perceive reality overtakes our capacity to create new realities. The 28.5 practices the authors outline in this book help keep imagination alive and kicking. My personal list of favorites includes:

  • Make greedy, grateful use of limits
  • Change the metaphors that frame your reality
  • Talk about your work with someone who doesn’t understand it
  • Make the ending open-ended
  • Trade sharp focus for full-field awareness
  • Regularly rinse out expectations
  • Find better problems
  • Never say no to an idea
  • Treat failure like a skill

I am a pastor. Borrowing a turn of phrase from St. Paul, part of my job is to help people take off the clothes of their old selves and put on the clothes of their new selves in Christ. It is a ministry that requires grace-filled imagination, of seeing the wonderful life that could be rather than just the miserable life that is. As I chewed on Liu and Nappe-Brandon’s list of practices, I savored the ways each one could help me do my job more effectively. Indeed, I tasted some ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that would help my life become what—God-willing—it could be.

I won’t detail those ways in this review. That might block your own imaginative appropriation of this book’s advice!

But I was also troubled as I read the book by what I perceived to be its swishy thinking. I got the impression that Liu and Nappe-Brandon thinking the basic problems facing the world are failures of imagination. They write: “If we want to contemplate—let alone generate—a vastly different set of headlines [than the depressing ones we read today], we have to rekindle a youthful naivete, a willful bewilderment about all the insanity and inadequacy that we come to tolerate, and a child’s habit of letting thought experiments run wild.”

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps the lack of peace in the Middle East, or the death of millions of children due to entirely preventable diseases, or the corruption of politics by special interests—all examples the authors cite—have deeper causes than lack of imagination. Indeed, in each case, the solution is at hand: land for peace, NGOs providing medicine at low or no cost to patients, campaign fundraising reform. The problem is not that solutions haven’t been imagined, but that those imagined solutions won’t be applied. The problem is not epistemological (a lack of information) but moral (a lack of will).

So, two books in one: Read the first; be careful with the second.

P.S. If you found this book review helpful, please vote Yes here.

When Athens Met Jerusalem


John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $22.00, 266 pages.

When Athens Met Jerusalem by John Mark Reynolds begins and ends at the Areopagus, where Paul famously disputed with a group of Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:16-34). In between, it takes us on a whirlwind tour of Greek philosophy, surveying the pre-Socratics (chapter 1); Socrates (chapter 2); Plato (chapters 3-7); Aristotle (chapters 8-9); and the neo-Platonists, Epicureans, and Stoics (chapter 10). The stated purpose of this tour? To tell “the story of Greek philosophy and how it helped prepare the way for Christendom,” by which Reynolds means, “Christ’s kingdom.”

Some Christian readers doubt whether such a tour is necessary. Like the third-century Christian Tertullian, they ask, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy [of Plato] and the Church?” This is a good question. In the first few centuries of the church, followers of the philosophies Reynolds surveys were often critical of Christianity, when not outright rivals to it. One thinks here especially of Gnosticism, which was a religious popularization of neo-Platonism and for centuries a thorn in the side of orthodox Christianity. Sympathy for Athens thus seems like sympathy for the devil. And more generally it’s not clear how easily open-ended dialogue sits with divine revelation, the former assuming that answers are yet to be discovered while the latter that they have already been uncovered.

But Reynolds perseveres. On the one hand, he points out that much of Christian thought is simply incomprehensible without knowledge of classical philosophy. Philosophy provided the vocabulary and conceptual tools by means of which the church fathers articulated the faith in their own day and age. On the other hand, philosophy laid out the problems for which Christianity offered the best solutions. The philosophers Reynolds surveys uniformly deplored the Delphic religion of their age, in which the gods were arbitrary and irrational tyrants and reality at bottom was simply “chaos and dark night.” How to explain the orderliness of the cosmos as well as the possibility of moral agency? How to provide political unity without sacrificing liberty to tyranny? The philosophers couldn’t offer a definitive answer. Christ could and did. Or so Reynolds argues.

In my judgment, Reynolds does a better job outlining Athens’ problems than providing Jerusalem’s answers. His five chapters on Plato, for example, are a masterful introduction to that philosopher’s dialogues. Indeed, if the measure of a good introduction is that it fires the reader’s desire to consume the original works, then Reynolds’ book must be judged a success, for I wanted to go right out and read (or re-read) each and every one of Plato’s works. Reynolds’ chapters on Aristotle, the neo-Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans are less interesting, perhaps because he has less interesting material to work with. Still, one gets a keen sense of the intellectual problematics of Greek philosophy by reading Reynolds’ book.

By contrast with his extensive discussion of Athens’ problems, Reynolds’ discussion of Jerusalem’s solutions seems perfunctory and dogmatic. Reynolds is professor of philosophy at Biola University, an evangelical Christian school. An in-depth case can be made for how Christ pointed to the solution of Greek intellectual problems. And perhaps Reynolds will make that case in a future book. My point is that he has not made it here, at least not to my satisfaction, and certainly not in the same depth as his treatment of Athens’ philosophies. The subtitle of When Athens Met Jerusalem is “An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought.” That description of the book is only half right, in my opinion.

But perhaps it is too much to ask of an author that he accomplish such an immense task in a single book. So, honor where honor is due: Reynolds has written an excellent introduction to Greek philosophy for students and interested laypeople. It succeeds in describing both Greek philosophy and the intellectual problems for which Christian theologians of the patristic era offered solutions. I heartily recommend this book, and I eagerly await another one from Reynolds focusing on patristic solutions.

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