Canned Chicken Broth, the Really Cool App, and Bad Theology

Hand flippers.  You have to admire Ben Franklin, that quintessential American, for inventing hand flippers for easier swimming.  He was eleven years old.  It may not be his greatest invention, but it did help get him elected to the International Swimmers Hall of Fame, (not in 1717 when he was eleven, but in 1968.)

Like most Americans, I love the conveniences that have been invented and developed over the years.  I’ve never used Franklin’s hand flippers, though I do wear bifocals.  And I must say I indulge myself in all sorts of conveniences.  If I were to list the conveniences that I enjoy (and ought to be thankful for) the list would include automatic garage door openers,, Arby’s, direct deposit, refrigeration, Netflix, drive-up windows, disposable diapers (that was a while ago), escalators, frozen pizza,, Kensington clickers (for remotely changing power point slides in class), thermostats, self-checkout lines, lawn mowers, Google docs, indoor plumbing, Dunkin’ Donuts, credit cards, remote

It just makes cooking a bit easier.

car locks, alphabetization, Post-It notes, mail delivered to my home, my computer grading program, car radios, email, the invisible fence for our dog, Turbotax, air conditioning, the private bathroom connected to our bedroom, taco seasoning, interstate ramps,, the Land Ordinance of 1785 that arranged Midwestern roads into grids, online fantasy baseball, and, of course, canned chicken broth.

Ah, the pursuit of happiness.

Except that, of course, happiness doesn’t really work this way.

From the above list, Elisa and I made use of the following conveniences when we lived in Kenya:  lawn mowers, refrigeration (in our home, but not in Mbote Kamau’s butcher shop where we bought our meat), escalators (going up, but not down, in one mall in Nairobi), indoor plumbing, alphabetization (sometimes).

Nothing else. No canned chicken broth.

And were we less happy in Kenya than we are now in the United States?

No. Imagine that.

If prodded, most American Christians would probably admit that conveniences and material possessions do not produce or guarantee happiness.  Our actions, however, indicate we haven’t fully convinced ourselves of this.

For instance, it is common for American evangelicals who have returned from a short term mission trip to Guatemala or Zambia or Haiti to say, “they have so little, and yet they are so happy.”

Interesting, isn’t it?  Despite what we tell ourselves, we are still surprised to discover that Christians in poverty could be joyful.  And that rich Christians are not always joyful.  Dig a little deeper, and we can be slightly amazed to actually encounter joyful Christians who endure hardship, suffering, injustice and deep pain.

A historical observation:  there are signs that it is getting harder and harder for American Christians to accept the idea that one can be joyful if we do not have conveniences and material prosperity.  A century ago and even fifty years ago, most Christians would not have grounded their own happiness in the center of their theology.  Whether we realize it or not, we seem to be doing that very thing today.

Strong evidence here can be found in Christian Smith’s excellent study of the spiritual lives of teenagers, called Soul Searching.  (For a wide range of reasons, I highly recommend this book).  In an extensive sociological study of teens across the country, Smith found that teens may identify themselves as Nazarene or Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist or Jewish, but most of them are really Moral Therapeutic Deists.  In other words, if you break down what they really believe, it goes like this:  God exists though He is not particularly involved in our lives.  We are all basically good.  The purpose of life is to be happy.  God does actually get active when we are in trouble – then he will come and fix our problems.  Smith says in this way of thinking, God is like a Divine Butler.

Smith is a brilliant scholar, but I’d suggest that we could adjust the Divine Butler metaphor.  I don’t know anybody who has a butler.  Few people read P.G. Wodehouse anymore (and that is certainly unfortunate).   I think instead is fitting to say that most teens see God as a Really Cool App.  He’s there in your pocket, and whenever you need him to fix a problem, you pull him out and punch in your request.  He’ll just fix it too, because He wants you to be happy.  That’s what He is there for.  And that is what the Christian church should be doing.

If you read my previous post, you will recall my story about the student who questioned the Christian nature of Malone because I would not let her into a class she wanted.  Apparently she thought it was her right to get the course schedule she wanted.  It seems that increasingly our culture defines the pursuit of happiness to mean that happiness itself is an inalienable right.  And shouldn’t the church support our inalienable rights?

American teens did not invent this thinking.  They are just being socialized by the culture they grow up in, which is why most believe the purpose of life is to be happy.

This is Bad Theology for a number of reasons.  It assumes that the world and even God Himself revolves around us as individuals.  It fails to adequately account for our individual sinfulness, for if we constantly try to arrange everything according to our individual desires for happiness, we will make others around us more miserable.  Since we are in control of the Really Cool App, we place God on our terms, turning to him only when we are desperate.  And then, upon discovering that the world is not ordered for our convenience, that we can’t always get what we want, and that we can’t really control the Really Cool App, we will get very frustrated and disappointed with God.

I don’t know how these impulses will unfold in American culture or the American church in the years to come.  I do know from personal experience that at the desperate point where the world does not work the way I want, I finally am able (after I get over my frustration and disappointment) to accept the grace of God in a way that I had not before.  Joy follows.

That is my hope for the future of American Christianity.



Are Our iPhones Making Us Feel More Entitled?

I wonder if this makes sense to anyone else.

When I say that iPhones make us feel entitled, I don’t mean that we feel entitled to more and more consumer or electronic goods.  I speak instead of the soft entitlement of convenience.

Let me give a story to illustrate a more obvious expression of this kind of entitlement.  When I was department chair, I received a call from a student who wanted permission to get into one of two world history classes that were closed.   One of the classes was an honors course.  The other was in a program we call the “Learning Cluster,” in which students take three courses together, with world history as one of the courses.  She was neither in the honors program nor in the Cluster program, so I told her I could not let her into those classes.

She countered by saying that because she needed this world history class to graduate and no other section worked, I had to let her in.  We had three other world history options, so I asked her why those did not work.  One conflicted with another required class, she explained.  Fine.  The other two?  They didn’t work out well with her personal schedule for various reasons.  After some discussion, in which I did not budge, she told me I had to let her into one of the world history classes she wanted because she had no choice in this matter.  I told her that the other two sections that did not fit well with her personal schedule may not be ideal options, but they were options.  She did have a choice, even if it wasn’t the best choice imaginable.

She was mad.  “And I thought Malone was a Christian college!” she declared.

And thus endeth the conversation.

Now, at the time, I just chalked this up to a student who had an abnormally healthy sense of entitlement.  I rarely run into students who are either this insistent or this critical of the theological character of our fair college.  But she does illustrate a larger pattern.

It seems to my colleagues and me that students will ask for things related to convenience, which students did not ask for ten years ago.  They sometimes expect matters to be arranged in ways that would never have crossed our minds when people of my (old) generation were in college.  They are deeply shaped by convenience and they expect it.

Now, I should say I love my students.  They are wonderful in many ways.  They are usually very polite and nice, often to a fault.  The soft entitlement of convenience is not some character flaw particular that they chose, but rather as something new in the wider culture.

  •  For instance, students will often ask us to teach independent study courses for them, apparently unaware that independent study classes require extra time and preparation by the professor.  (Many of these are legitimate requests because of scheduling conflicts, I should point out, but some are just made because the student thinks it sounds good).
  • On my student evaluations for an 8 a.m. class, I had several students say that they thought I should move the class to later in the day.  I’ve always had students say that they didn’t like 8 a.m. classes (and we didn’t like them in 1981, either) but I have never had students actually suggest that I can and should do something about this.  (They don’t realize that limited classroom space and conflicting schedules make it impossible for all classes to be held at the ideal times of 11, 12 and 1).
  • A student who was unhappy about his C+ grade came in to see a colleague of mine to ask why it was not higher.  One of the complaints the student had was that the instructions were not clear enough.   When my colleague pointed out the instructions in the syllabus, the student replied that this was not his fault because the instructions should have been in boldface type in order for him to see them.
  •  My wife, who teaches high school history, had a student skip her final exam, then appear in her class at the end of the day to take the exam during the “make-up” time slot that had been set aside by the high school (for students who had been sick or absent earlier in finals week).  When asked why she didn’t come to the morning exam, the student said that the make-up slot was available, so she didn’t see why she couldn’t take the exam at the later time.  I asked Elisa if this was just a really bad excuse, but Elisa (who knows her students well and is a pretty good judge of character) said that this student was quite sincere.   Seemingly, this student thought it was totally appropriate to sleep in, or study more, or go to the pancake house, or whatever, because that “make-up” time was there on the schedule.
  • I had a student contact me one week after the semester was over, and ask if there was any extra thing he could do to raise his grade, now that he saw what he received on his final grade report.

I could go on.

Does anyone else see this trend?  And if so, what is causing it?

My first thought was that this is just the latest evolution of consumerism.  We are socialized to be consumers from the moment we watch our first TV program and we expect to be able to get what we want.

This problem is related to consumerism, but I did not find this explanation totally satisfying.  After all, consumerism has been fairly widespread in America at least since the 1920s and became especially pervasive in the 1950s.  We have all been shaped deeply by it, regardless of our age.  So, I wondered, why has this soft entitlement of convenience seemingly appeared in the last five years or so?  What is new or different in society?


(Disclaimer: I’m told that iPhones are wonderful things.  I believe this.  I don’t actually own an iPhone and have never used one.  I’m not, however, anti-Apple or anti-technology.  I am writing a blog, here, after all).

Here’s my theory.  In order for a new set of social attitudes to appear, they have to result from more than just an idea or a new way of thinking.  Patterns and habits formed by repeated actions play a powerful role in forming new attitudes.  On the other hand, if you do not participate in a particular pattern on a regular basis, it won’t shape you very deeply.

For instance, twenty years ago when I was in Kenya, a dentist friend of mine explained that it was hard for his African office workers to alphabetize files.  It is not that they were stupid.  They knew the alphabet and were literate.  But they lived in a culture where they only rarely encountered things that were alphabetized.  Americans, meanwhile, are used to thinking alphabetically when we check an index, glance at our phone list, scan a list of people, open our computer files, or browse shows on the cable TV guide.  We’ve been alphabetizing almost daily since the second grade so it becomes second nature to us.  Twenty years ago, these Kenyans rarely, if ever, did any of these tasks.

So how do iPhones affect patterns of behaviors?

Think about the many functions and apps on iPhones and similar devices.  I’m at the grocery store and I don’t know if I need eggs, so I call home.  We’re going to the movies with the gang and my friend is late, so I text her to see what the deal is.  I am in a new neighborhood and want to eat at Panera so I do a Google search on my phone to find the nearest one.  There is a detour on my road, but Google maps is right there on my phone to tell me where to go.  My coffee maker broke and I need a new one, but I don’t have time during the day to run to Target, so I buy it online with my iPhone and the coffee maker is delivered to my door by the end of the day.  I’m at a Bible study late Sunday afternoon while my favorite NFL team is competing in the playoffs, so I (discreetly) get updated scores from my phone.  I want to go to a restaurant on Saturday night when they are all very busy, so I check my app that tells me which spots in the neighborhood have a free table available now. I drive by the gas company and suddenly realize my utilities bill was due today, so I make the payment electronically at the next red light.  I am writing a blog about iPhones, but I don’t own an iPhone and in fact I have never used an iPhone and I don’t want to sound totally stupid about iPhones so I Google “most popular apps” to get material for my blog about iPhones.

I could, of course, go on.

The point is that iPhones encourage users to try to make life more convenient on a nearly constant, minute-by-minute basis.

Each one of the examples above represents a minor problem that pops up in life.  In 2000, each of these problems could be addressed, but they would have taken some time, some patience, some work, and even then they might not have been resolved successfully.  They were inconvenient.  In 2013, with an iPhone in hand, a person can fix each problem in an instant.  How convenient!

And if a person used their iPhone over and over and over again, dozens or hundreds of times a day, for days and months and years, wouldn’t this person unconsciously start to engage the world in a particular sort of way?  Wouldn’t these habits, like alphabetizing, become second nature?  And if a person were in the habit of constantly manipulating their engagement with the world electronically to make their life more convenient, wouldn’t that person almost instinctively expect to be able to arrange most or all things for convenience?  Like class schedules?

But those stubborn, small-minded department chairs stand in the way of the world history class that fits so well with a person’s schedule!   Obviously this “Christian college” app isn’t performing the way it should.

“The Abolitionists” on PBS

If you are interested in abolition in the United States, PBS is running a series this month.  I’ve already missed the first episode, I’m afraid, but the second is Tuesday night at 9 p.m.

The series focuses on five important abolitionists in the U.S. — Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.  I’m not sure how PBS will handle the religious issues involved, though I would say all five were influenced, to greater or lesser extent, by evangelicalism, though I think I might only classify Grimke, Stowe and Brown as evangelicals.

For a nice analysis of how evangelicalism shaped Angelina Grimke, you might want to read what the historian Carol Berkin has to say about her at the Huffington Post.

Thanks also to John Fea who tipped me off to both of these sources.



Is the World Secularizing?

Maybe.   Probably not.  It depends on what you mean by secularizing.  And we need more data.

I said something similar in an earlier post.  So if that sounds familiar to you, you actually read that post about secularization in the United States AND you remembered what I said there.  Wow.  I am impressed with you.

Background:  there has been some discussion in the media lately about whether or not the U.S. is secularizing because the number of people who identify themselves as not adhering to any particular religious group is on the rise.  (This definition of “secularization” refers to the percentage of people who display overt religious activity in their life.  There are other forms of secularization which I won’t discuss here).

So what is happening around the world?  For many decades, social scientists assumed that whatever happened in Europe and the United States/Canada would eventually happen in the rest of the world.  If this sounds arrogant, it is because it is arrogant.  Social scientists, it should be pointed out, are actually human beings and not thinking machines, which means that they are susceptible to self-centeredness and ethnocentrism.  Like the rest of us.

In the last decade or so, this “secularization thesis” has been crumbling.  Now we have more information to chew on.  Our friends at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently published a study of worldwide religious affiliation.  Overall, they found that 16% of the world’s population declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, which is slightly less than the religiously unaffiliated in North America (17%) or Europe (18?).

So, are Europe and the US/Canada leading the way in a secularization trend?

Well, guess what:  the world doesn’t always follow Europe and the US/Canada.  In this case that is a good thing.

Where are most of the “nones?”  More than 75% of all the “nones” in the world are not found in Europe or North America, but in Asia.  So maybe Asia is secularizing more quickly?  Well, not so fast.  We have to remember that Asia has far more people than the rest of the world, so they tend to outnumber everybody in a lot of areas.   99% of all Buddhists and 99% of all Hindus are found in Asia, for example.

So let us break this down a bit more.  The six nations that have the highest percentage of “nones” are as follows:

Czech Republic:  76%

North Korea:       71%

Estonia:               60%

Japan:                  57%

Hong Kong:        56%

China:                  52%

Notice a pattern?  Japan and Hong Kong have their own peculiar dynamics, so take them out.  The other four nations indicate that communism has been a powerful factor, globally, in producing people who do not affiliate with any religion.

What does this mean for the future?  It’s the commies who secularize the most people!  So we need to stand hard against godless communism and the pinko threat to our God, our flag, our precious bodily fluids and, and, and….oh, wait a minute.  It’s not 1956 anymore, is it?  It’s 2013.

Communism is obviously passé as a political ideology, except to North Koreans who didn’t get the memo.  Communism is not the future, though it has certainly left a secular legacy in many of the nations where it took root.

This is what I find interesting, though:  while the “nones” are possibly on the rise among the younger generation in the United States, the opposite may be true in Asia.  We need more data on this, but the Pew study finds that the median age of the “nones” in Asia, 35, is significantly higher than the median age, which is 29.   The younger people are more religious than the older generations.

By its sheer size, China accounts for a lot of this.  The report did not break down the median age data by nation, but the sheer size of China suggests that this nation accounts for large amount of this percentage of older “nones.”

This fits with what we know about the growth of Christianity in China.  If atheists, agnostics and secular types appear to be on the rise in the West, Asia may be heading in the opposite direction.

Now, these are tremendously huge generalizations, so we need a lot more studies to speak with any precision.  But the study suggests that we can’t say, with any confidence, that the world is secularizing.  The opposite may be more likely.

One other little tidbit from the study.   Which religion is more evenly dispersed around the world than any other?  Christianity.

That suggests that Christianity is far more culturally adaptable (and, I would argue, sensitive to local issues and needs) than Islam, Hinduism, folk religion, Buddhism, or (gasp!) atheism/agnosticism.

Oh, yeah.  The cultural adaptability of Christianity was a theme in my book, wasn’t it?  (Sorry.  I can’t resist a shameless plug).


Religious Ignorance in a Religious Society

A paradox:  the United States is the most religious of all industrialized (and thus, highly-educated) societies in the world.  But Americans, on the whole, are very ignorant about religion. For those of you who are interested, I wrote about this on another website.

Mahmoud Whatshisname, the President of that nation “somewhere over in Islam.” What do I mean by this? You’ll just have to follow the link to the Church History site to find out.

I was asked to post a blog on the American Society of Church History site.   I decided to ask my fellow academics if there is something that can be done about the ignorance of religion (and Christianity) in American society.  It’s a blog directed toward scholars, but non-academics might be interested, as well.  You can find it here.