Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Architecture of Hospitality

In his excellent work, The Devil Reads Derrida, James K.A. Smith shares a brief essay concerning the ways in which architectural attributes of a house can contribute to or deteriorate the experience of community within a neighborhood. There was, undoubtedly, a time when I would have rejected that sort of an idea, After all, I would have thought, only a person of weak moral fortitude would allow their relationships with others to be impacted by a house. Things have changed, however, and I now benefit from a slightly more robust understanding of the ways in which we humans are bodied beings. The old understanding of souls stuck in bodies was never a Christian idea, although it has proven to be a particularly infectious belief within the Church. The truth of the matter is that we are, in our wholeness, body and soul so united that the two cannot be separated from one another in a meaningful way. We were created good with our bodies and we hope for the day when we will live in our resurrected and perfected bodies in a physical New Jerusalem. Most importantly, we worship the God Who took on flesh and joined Himself to a body in the person of Jesus Christ.
With that being said, it is hard to deny the truth that our physical environment has a very real impact upon us. Smith points out a particular point in which contemporary American home architecture has been tainted by consumerism and individualism and, in response, encourages us to be consumers and individualists. His example is that of the disappearance of the front porch. It was not all that long ago that front porches were a staple in home construction, which moved the home's center of gravity toward the street and increased the likelihood that those living in a given house would interact with, know, and love their neighbors. Why is it that the front porch has suddenly disappeared? The answer is surprisingly obvious: the increasing importance of the garage. We treasure our cars and want to protect them from the elements and so we allow the garage to encroach upon the porch's allotment. As we buy more cars, we need more space in which to put them and so the garage expands to fit two or even three cars, leaving no space for a front porch. It becomes possible to drive home, open the garage door with a remote control, park, close the garage door and enter the home without ever being exposed to the threat of encountering one's neighbors.
Smith's example of the front porch leads me to consider what other architectural elements might encourage us to know and love our neighbors. The first to spring to my mind is the guest room. A guest room serves in several ways to encourage us to be hospitable. (I recommend this short article of Smith's concerning the loss of hospitality and the growth of the hotel industry). When friends and family, a missionary on furlough, or even a perfect stranger needs a place to stay, having a guest room prepared allows us to meet their need and to extend the hospitality and welcoming love of Christ and His Church. A guest room is, of course, a burden in a way. Having a place for someone to stay dismantles many of the comforting arguments we use to convince ourselves that we are excused from extending hospitality. Often, though, we need to remove our excuses in advance so that we might more readily live like Christ. Even during the majority of days when our guest rooms are empty, they will serve as a symbolic reminder that we have an empty place in our house yearning for a life to fill it. Not only does a guest room provide us with the means of hospitality, but also with a constant reminder of the virtue of hospitality.
The dining room must also be mentioned, as the breaking of bread and sharing of a meal is of key importance to Christians in particular. Although I am not sure what sort of a dining room design would most encourage us to actually have our neighbors over for dinner instead of meaning to have them over (and would appreciate your ideas in the comments section), I have a few ideas. The table should be big enough to accommodate at least two more people than there are in your family, so that, once again, you remove your excuses in advance. Furthermore, the table should not be allowed to become a collecting place for every loose item in your house (a tendency that afflicts me in particular), nor should it be decorated so extravagantly that it seems a crime to eat at it. Beautiful centerpieces are great, but if they ever begin to impede upon the table's intended purpose, fellowship, they must go.
Finally, one must consider the living room. It is now expected that the seating of a living room will be arranged around the television (our apartment is generally situated in this way, as well). I do not expect this to change completely, but we cannot allow our furniture to be directed toward the television in such a way that it inhibits our ability to have conversation. This, of course, rules out stadium seating, but also means that from any given seat on a chair or couch we should be able to easily make eye contact with a person in any other seat. Most of the seats should also enjoy healthy amounts of available light (for reading) and close access to a side or coffee table so that we can enjoy coffee with one another.
If you have any thoughts or ideas concerning how we can better design our houses for community, please share them below.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Swine Flu, Tsunamis, and Drug Wars: Are we right to see these as signs of sin?

A few days ago, I overhead a conversation that caught my attention. Three affable thirty-somethings, who were obviously Christians given much of their conversation, ended up discussing Mexico. This in and of itself is far from noteworthy, but it was what they had to say about Mexico that really struck me. One of the women said something along the lines of,
"They had that earthquake in Mexico City, they have these drug wars, and now the swine flu. It really kind of makes you wonder if they aren't being punished for something?"
The other two nodded their heads and made remarks of agreement.
This line of thought is not foreign to me, and I understand what they meant all too well. The fact of the matter is that I, too, am often quick to mentally label grave suffering as a form of punishment dealt out by the hand of God. It seems to make sense to us: Mexico must be caught up in some awful sin to be given an earthquake, a drug war, and a (newly labeled by the WHO) pandemic. In the same way, many people were quick to label Hurricane Katrina as God's judgment on New Orleans, and the 2004 Tsunami as an unmistakable act of God. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not only the disasters of such great proportions that cause us to think of God's wrath against sin, but also individual diseases and disabilities, financial setbacks, and untimely deaths. We can put the pieces together: people who are suffering (and usually who aren't us) are most likely being punished for some sin, whether flagrant or hidden. The problem with this line of reasoning for Christians is that it is expressly condemned in the Bible.
Please allow me to retell a story found in John chapter 9. One day while Jesus was travelling, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples, being religious people like ourselves, asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" What a reasonable question they must have thought that was, and open-minded too as they allowed for the possibility that either the man or his parents had sinned to cause his blindness. Jesus' answer refused to bend to the predetermined nature of the disciples' question however,
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." Jesus then spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, put it on the man's eyes and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. When this man did so, he went home seeing.
One man's blindness, which was so obviously the result of sin to so many, was actually meant to be the occasion for God to do an outstanding miracle. This man would actually become an outspoken evangelist for Jesus later on in chapter 9, and the Pharisees who claimed to be able to see were blinded to the work of God because of their understanding that the man's disability must have been a divine punishment (verse 34).
This story does not stand alone in teaching this lesson. In Luke chapter 13, Jesus made a similar point while talking about Siloam once again. Some of the people accompanying Jesus told him about some people of Galilee whose blood Pilate (the Roman Ruler over Israel's region) had mixed with pagan sacrifices. Such a fate would have been horrific to the Jews, not only because of the implied murder of those people, but because the blood of those who only worshiped the one true God was offered to an idol. Hearing about these people, Jesus knew immediately what the tale-bearers were implying with the news and answered their unasked question,
"Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
Here, Jesus is not emphasizing the point made with the man born blind that his disability was a gift from God meant to show God's glory, but is instead teaching that those who make judgments about the sin of others in order to explain their catastrophes need to recognize that they are just as sinful as those they are judging. Yes, there are times when suffering comes as a judgment (such as the sacking of Jerusalem foretold by the prophet Jeremiah), but there are times when it does not, and we are incapable of judging which is the case without a word on the matter direct from God. If we are to learn any lesson concerning sin from the disaster that befalls others, it is that we are just as much sinners as they are and that the possibility of imminent death should lead us all to repent of our sins and turn to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
At this point, it is possible that some readers might think I am saying that the New Testament differs from the Old Testament in its understanding of suffering, but the Bible is in harmony with itself as God's inspired word and this is not the case. The Old Testament, like the New, teaches that we cannot simply understand the workings of the world as bad things happening to bad people and good things rewarding good people.
The Book of Job deals with this issue at length as the godly and righteous man Job suffers incredible loss (losing his children, his immense fortune, his health, his high status in his community, and the respect of his wife and friends) with God's permission. Over the course of the book, Job's friends and supposed comforters becoming increasingly dogmatic and aggressive in their understanding that Job's suffering is the result of his incredible sins. Job, however, remains steadfast in his confession of innocence and his claim that he has done nothing warranting the torment he suffers. Although God eventually silences Job by leading him to understand that he is not fit to question God's wisdom and power, He also says that Job has spoken what is right of Him whereas the comforters have not. This reiterates the point made once by the narrator, and twice by God that Job truly was blameless and upright. If Job could suffer more greatly than most humans who have ever lived while remaining blameless and upright, surely we cannot use suffering alone to judge the righteousness of others. This seems to line up quite well with the prophet Isaiah's understanding of the coming Messiah, who in perfect righteousness would suffer more than any human on a cross in order to bring salvation to sinners.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes bore witness to a righteous man who perished in his righteousness and a wicked man who lived long in his wickedness. The Psalmist admitted envying the arrogant when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. The examples are plentiful throughout Scripture and it is clear that we are not to judge to judge individuals, cities, or nations by the calamities that befall them. Instead of judgment, we are to imitate our Lord by offering comfort to those who suffer. This lesson is well taught by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (chapter 1, verses 3 to 7):
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bumper Stickers and Christian Fish

Attending a Christian university, I see more than my fair share of Christian bumper stickers and icthus emblems (so-called Jesus fish, Christian fish, IXOYE fish, etc.). A fairly small sampling of stickers appear again and again:

The "Not of this World®" Stickers

The "Godz Gurl," "God's Girl," "Godz Girl," and "God's Gurl" variety

The similar "Daughter of the King" and "I am a Princess because my Daddy is the King" kinds

The "We kicked God out of our schools, so of course we have school shootings" kind

The "Darwin is Dead" and "Nietzsche is Dead" variety

The "Jesus is my Co-Pilot"

The "Know Jesus, Know Heaven... No Jesus, No Heaven"

The "In case of rapture... car's yours!"

The "Don't be fooled by the car, my treasure's in Heaven."

The "Got Jesus?" and "Got Jesus? It's Hell without Him."

The "My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter"

The "Real Men Fight on their Knees" and "Real Men Love Jesus"

The Calvin and Hobbes knockoff praying before the cross

Let me begin by saying that I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with having such a bumper sticker or fish on your car, but I would like to point to a few inconsistencies and problems that can arise from these stickers. Not of this World commendably makes some of the most stylish Christian stickers around, but it is somewhat troubling that every sticker has a visible "®" symbol. The message comes across as conflicted when you are publicizing just how not of this world you are while also notifying everyone that this logo is registered and protected according to corporate law. Also, some people may find it hypocritical when they see the NOTW sticker on your new BMW, no matter how little your possessions actually matter to you.
The "Don't be fooled by the car, my treasure's in Heaven" sticker can be fairly humorous if your car is unlikely to be mistaken as an earthly treasure. If you have this on your Mercedes, you may have the same problem as mentioned above with regard to NOTW.
The "We kicked God out of our schools, so of course we have school shootings" is troublesome for several reasons. First of all, if by removing organized institutional prayer and Bible reading from American classrooms we think we kicked God out of the classroom, we have a very weak and shallow faith in God. The Creator of the universe does not need the compulsory prayer of a nonChristian teacher to enter a building. Furthermore, suggesting to the general public that something as tragic as school shootings is God's revenge for kicking Him out does not do justice to Christ. You might mean something far more nuanced than that, for example, that by removing compulsory Scriptural education students no longer have the moral base to prevent them from committing heinous acts of violence, but the bumper sticker is not exactly a medium capable of conveying nuance.
The stickers threatening Hell make sense in a way, and yet we should ask ourselves whether or not they are at all effective? Warning your friend with tears that he needs to know God's grace is one thing; damning strangers while cutting them off is another.
Aside from specific bumper sticker messages, Christians should reconsider their bumper stickers for two reasons. The first is derived from a recent study conducted by social psychologist William Szlemko of Colorado State University, which found that drivers with any bumper stickers at all, no matter their content, are more likely than those without to drive aggressively and exhibit road rage. By personalizing a car with stickers, a driver unwittingly indicates that he thinks of the car as his territory. This generally means that the driver is more territorial altogether, and is more likely to feel that the road is his and that his rights are infringed upon by other drivers. This means that even your "Pray for Peace" sticker indicates to others that you are more likely to drive with aggression.
The second and most compelling reason to reconsider your bumper sticker has to do with the nature of driving itself. If you are a kind and considerate driver, the kind of driver we all wish people knew was a Christian, almost every act of generosity on the road will be for the benefit of those in front of you. If you allow a car to merge ahead of you in your lane or to pull out of a driveway, they will end up in front of you. If you stop to let a pedestrian cross the street, they are in front of you. If you refuse to tailgate a slow driver, they will never see you rear bumper. Those driving behind you, however, will be the recipients of every one of your inconsiderate actions. If you hit the brakes suddenly, drive poorly while on the phone, cut somebody off, have a delayed reaction at a green light because you were not paying attention, or take to long to make a turn, the person behind you will be affected. Even if you are incredibly considerate, the very nature of driving will require you to do some things that will upset those behind you. Some of your considerate acts may even offend those to your rear: allowing a car to merge or a pedestrian to cross a street requires you to slow down or stop, which halts those following you; refusing to tailgate a slow driver causes you to look like the slow driver.
Undoubtedly, individuals have different motives for placing a Christian bumper sticker on their cars, and many of those motives are likely fantastic. I simply ask that we not feel pressured to buy into this trend and give each potential sticker a bit more reflection before applying it to our cars. They really aren't that easy to take off.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Who are my readers?

Although I rarely update this blog, I somehow manage to retain a few consistent readers, and I cannot help but wonder who they are. For instance, my most regular reader consistently visits from Lemoore, CA. So, any readers, first time or regular, and especially my reader in Lemoore, if you see this, please leave a comment and tell me a little about yourself. Thank you for reading.