Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Wisdom of Crowds

Contrarian to the core, I always take pause when I see something become a trend.

I appreciate self-organizing, adaptive systems. There is power in unleashing the creative talents of people. We see it market economies, freedom of the press, or even wikipedia. That's why I pay close attention to the collective wisdom of tradition, I disdain top-down organizations, and I prefer freedom to constraint. I am willing to accept messiness for the sake of empowerment.

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed several offering similar praise. Recently, a newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership began with the following...
I was struck recently by an article that begins with a statement about ants by Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon. "Ants aren't smart," she wrote in a National Geographic article; "ant colonies are." Today more and more people are recognizing the "wisdom of crowds" in which collective thought and action by groups are superior to the individual ability of even their most gifted members.
If the church is noticing something, that usually means that it's really old, old news. That's when I had to rethink my position.

I'm not being critical of the newsletter article. It encourages leadership training and teamwork. Congregations definitely would benefit from such talk.

However, I am a little squeamish about the "wisdom of crowds." I refuse to back away from my praise of adaptive systems. However, crowds make a lot of dumb decisions on the way to better ones. There is no wisdom in a lynch mob. There is nothing inherently superior to a crowd mentality. Wisdom comes from the interaction of ideas, and over a long period of time, the right decision usually emerges. In the meantime, let us not forget the suffering and hurt which can occur over the short term.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uncivil Society

According to Stephen Kotkin, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc was not the result of the forces of civil society. Instead it was the failure of "uncivil society"--"the bureaucrats, ideologues, political police, managers and other members of the Communist elite who ran the states of the Soviet bloc in partnership with the Kremlin."

If this analysis is true, then we should seriously rethink the idea that "God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom." Removing the barriers of a tyrannical government will never be enough. The desire for comfort and security often competes with freedom. Hence, Russia is toying with authoritarian rule.

Civil society needs to be cultivated. Freedom is never easy.

The End of a Free Government

James Madison's contribution to the science of government has primarily been attributed to his development of institutions and structures. His work in the development of the U.S. Constitution and the its ability to mitigate of competing interests is the stuff of high school government classes. The question remains has been to what end were these structures put in place.

A few have suggested that government was "to dull the edge of a fully participatory and democratic politics." At best, this was to curb the abuses of the rabble. At worst, a few scholars, such as Charles Beard, suggest that the institutions were to protect the rich elite.

Colleen Sheehan has suggested another possibility. Madison believed, according to Sheehan, that public opinion held the republic together. The institutions that Madison developed were meant to protect public opinion. Competing interests and balance of power found in the U.S. Constitution created space for "ongoing teaching, cultivating, arguing, and distilling of opinions."

The U.S. Constitution does not simply take the competing interests and pour them into a meat grinder where majority rules and minorities are protected. The end result is not the decisions of government. Instead, the end result should be a free citzenry.

Internet and Privacy

Michael Gerson questions whether the internet has led us to become a nation of exhibitionists. Demands for greater privacy and revealing everything online are basically two sides of the same coin. Gerson states, "Transparency has become disconnected from intimacy." The internet is not going away any time soon, and we probably need to discover the balance for ourselves individually if not as a society.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat suggests that the internet is ideologically neutral. The advantage that Democrats had in internet organizing last year is being matched by some Republicans in 2010. Unfortunately, the politicians have not learned that the internet produces support more fickle than usual. Making it easier to write your congressman or contribute to a campaign does not suggest a depth of engagement.

In a way, the rule of law and the institutions that we have provide us a balance against the vagaries of public opinion. The balance I suggest is not in terms of scale. Instead, the balance I mean is like a clock. The weights of a clock keep the clock running, but not too fast or too slow. It's like waiting till the next day to send that awful e-mail to your boss. Perhaps, you might think better of it in the morning.

Douthat also talks about the inevitable problem of buyers remorse. Sending a few sheckels to a candidate on a whim means that you may not realize his or her positions on a variety of issues. Douthat writes, "The internet breeds utopian hopes...this utopianism needs to be tempered by a realism that only hard experience can teach. Better if both right and left learn their lesson quickly — that technology changes, but politics remains the same."

That being said, the ability to collect support and money quickly is very helpful. Douthat reminds us that support for Haiti relief has benefited greatly from the internet's ability to organize.

Haiti Relief

The most important information to share with you this week is relief efforts for the recent earthquake in Haiti. Please take the time to support relief efforts. I am encouraging folks to give to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. If you would like to support another worthy cause, please do so, but always be careful about where your money is going. Also, check out The Haiti Connection, a clearinghouse for information about a variety of charities there. Be sure also to support Haiti long after it moves out of the headlines.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Funnies: Pants on the Ground

For some bizarre reason, I like this song. I also enjoy the many remixes and the covers. Take a special look at Jimmy Fallon's cover in the style of Neil Young. To General Larry Platt, I salute you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snake Oil and Hubris

Both columnists Peggy Noonan and David Brooks have recently written about the failure of our institutions. Both articles seem to be in response to the terrorist act which occurred on Christmas Day, 2009 on a plane bound for Detroit. Although both are helpful reading, in a way, Brooks' article intrigues me more.

Brooks argues that in the past "there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed." In the good ol' days, according to Brooks, we accepted the mistakes of human institutions, and then we moved on. "Now we seem to expect perfection from government and throw tantrums when it is not achieved."

I don't know if that's exactly true. Rarely, do I hear of a government official losing his or her job for even failures of epic proportion ("Heckova job, Brownie.") George W. Bush was re-elected with an unpopular war in Iraq precisely because many gave him the benefit of the doubt. The election of 2004 was essentially a referendum on the mantra, "stay the course." Some of the tantrums we are experiencing may be the legitimate frustration that our institutions are not moving to meet challenges. Also, many feel that their trust has been betrayed, and our leaders have done little to rebuild it.

Laying aside the legitimate concern for reform, Brooks does have a bigger idea. The underlying problem is hubris. We believe that all problems are solvable. We just need another product, another government program, or another technological gizmo. Unfortunately, the worst offenders of hubris have been our leaders & politicians. They have encouraged us to be dependent on them. They tickle our ears with promises of easy wealth and safety without sacrifice. Elections are won by promising that all our wildest dreams will come true. I don't doubt the sincerity of our snake oil salesmen. They believe their own rhetoric, and they are shocked when we want our money back.

The title of Brooks article is apt, "The God who Fails." We have come to our human institutions expecting too much. We trust in the government, the media, business, the academy, and even religious institutions more than we trust in God. Perhaps, Noonan is correct. She suggests that our institutions have lost sight of their mission. Clearly, a sober reflection on the proper purpose and limits of these institutions would be greatly helpful. However, that isn't enough.

Instead, each one of us needs to ask the question of the psalmist, "...from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1-2).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Most Useless Machine Ever

The Most Useless Machine Ever. This machine probably is a metaphor for so many things. I need to use the blueprints just to build my own. I could take it to all sorts of meetings.

Mission or Identity

Peggy Noonan tells us that the crisis of the last decade has been the failure of institutions. Government, business, and even the church have received their lumps in the past ten years. The problem started long before that, but Noonan notes that we have now entered a crisis. She believes the problem is that our leadership have forgotten the mission.

I would say that we are in the midst of an identity crisis. We don't know what we believe or who we are.

Traditions in U.S. Foreign Policy

In Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead discusses the direction of America foreign policy in terms of four great traditions represented by Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.

Bono's Cultural Solution

Who knew that Bono was a guest columnist for the New York Times?

In a recent article, he suggested an annual arts festival to bring together followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He argues that music helped bridge gaps in Ireland during the "Troubles", and he places hope in the arts for the current problems in the Middle East.

Color me skeptical. Still, I agree with the unspoken premise under his proposal. A huge part of the problem is cultural. Until the culture changes, the political process will inevitably fail.

TFA Alumni and Civic Engagement

There has been a recent study of the post-corps experience of Teach For America teachers. They discovered that TFA teachers are not significantly more involved in voting, charitable giving or civic engagement. The poll takers credit the disappointing results to burnout and disillusionment. Thankfully, a former TFA teacher has shown some problems with the poll's numbers.

Since I can't find the poll on-line, I also wonder if it was measuring the wrong things. Among TFA alumni that I know, I notice a difference in their attitudes toward community change. Their young idealism has often given way to a tested and mature realism. They are still committed to solving inequality and injustice, but they have learned how to work within existing institutions. They are imaginative, but they are also pragmatic. Most importantly, many have also learned patience. The fight for justice is a marathon, not a sprint.

Getting the Name Right

Where the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are truly wars, Peter Breinart suggests that the so-called "War on Terror" is misnamed. As a result, we don't have a real plan to fight it. Looking at the example of the similarly misnamed "Cold War", Breinart suggests an effort at containment and ideological struggle.

Lessons from Toyota?

After failure of preventing the underwear bomber, we are reminded again that our intelligence agencies are a Byzantine collection of agencies. I found this article on organization with lessons from Toyota interesting.

Two mitigating thoughts:

(1) Spy agencies are different than car companies.

(2) Any efficiencies gained should not be at the cost of the rule of law.

Pastors, Protect Your Marriage

* I'm not always a huge fan of Rick Warren, but he is right on target when he warns pastors to protect their marriages. Pastors deal with emotions and vulnerabilities all the time. They need to work hard to keep lines of communication open with their spouses.

* Speaking about Rick Warren, apparently Saddleback Church had a $900,000 shortfall in 2009. About 10% of their parishioners are out of work. Clearly the economy stinks right now, and giving is down everywhere. I don't know if the shortfall was a surprise, but I wonder if it could be handled different.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday Funnies: The Parrot Sketch

It's not pinin,' it's passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he would be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians! It's hopped the twig! It's shuffled off this mortal coil! It's run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This.... is an EX-PARROT!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sermon Background Noise: Acts 8

This week's sermon is from Acts 8:14-17. The story is about Simon Magus, the magician who was baptized, and then offered money to have the power to give the Holy Spirit.

* This week's soundtrack includes U2's "Grace." The Holy Spirit is not something you can earn or buy. Although Simon should be commended for desiring the power to give the Holy Spirit, it was not Peter's to grant or sell. It was gift. As leaders in the church, we should rely on God's grace rather than our abilities or the latest gimmicks.

* The Catholic Encyclopedia provides wonderful reference material from a Roman Catholic perspective dated from 1913. Although scholarship and Vatican II has happened in the meantime, it still provides a good look on the tradition. Here is an article on Simon Magus from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

* John Calvin's commentaries on the story can be found here, here and here.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ministry Among the Cultured Despisers

The Philadelphia Inquirer had a front page article about the challenges facing Orthodox Churches in the neighborhood of Northern Liberties. It's the classic story of changing communities. The congregations no longer reflect the culture surrounding them, and the numbers are dwindling.

Typically, I’ve heard this story about churches born in white blue-collar communities that are now in the midst of poverty and ethnic diversity. The prescription always is to change. The congregation needs to reach out to the new population with culturally attuned music, programs to alleviate poverty, and more hospitality. Some churches are successful in the change. Others are not able to make the transition.

What intrigues me about the challenges facing these Orthodox Churches is that the culture has changed from an immigrant ethnic population to an affluent educated white population. Northern Liberties has become a trendy, avant-garde community. Clearly the Orthodox Church will not be making sweeping accommodations in their liturgy to the new culture, but a larger question remains: How does the church do ministry among the Bohemian Bourgeois?
I found the comments of the community’s residents concerning their attitudes toward religion most interesting.
“It's not that I don't have a spiritual dimension in my life…organized religion isn't doing it for me."

"Not that I don't believe in God…[but ] church is kind of out of fashion in its structure. People in our generation tend to make our own paths rather than follow someone else's."

"It just manifests itself in different ways than attending church…I try to be a good person. I try to treat others as I'd like to be treated."

Clearly the author picked the quotes, but each person seems a bit defensive. There is an acknowledgement that the spiritual life has value, but there is resistance to structure and commitment.

I know that my observations are worth very little, but I have learned a few things about this population.
  • Do not compete directly with the culture. You will lose. We can’t do music, theater, and the like better than New York or Hollywood. We shouldn’t try. We should do what we do to the best of our ability with integrity and faithfulness. There lies the difference.
  • Syncretism is not the answer. Interestingly, the culture encourages a cafeteria-style religion, but it also appreciates authenticity. A muddled intellectual and theological mush isn’t very authentic. The curious who come will be syncretistic. That’s just the reality, but the church shouldn’t be.
  • The church should be hospitable. That being said, the church must be willing to engage respectfully with all viewpoints. We should acknowledge the good wherever we see it, and we should be open to be corrected.
  • The church needs to become apologists. We aren’t talking about making apologies for past sins (although repentance should be always the church’s agenda). Too often, apologetics has been reduced simply to logical arguments. “If A=B, the Jesus is Lord. Quad Erat Demonstrandum.” We need to explain why we do what do with reason, but also with poetry and emotion.
  • The church needs to focus on building community. Our society is incredibly lonely. When we build our own identity and life is individually tailored to our choices, we stand alone. People are longing for community, and the church should reach out in fellowship and love. We need to build relationships with each other.
  • The church needs to focus on good works. Worship still remains the heart of who we are, but living the faith by actively doing good works is essential. Selfless love is an important entry point into the life of faith, and churches need to develop a sacramental understanding of service. Service points to God.
  • Finally, I am more convinced today than ever that the church should talk about the stewardship of the environment. This is not a capitulation to the culture. “Being green” has become the lifestyle of many. If the church chooses to ignore that, we are not loving those ever increasing number of “tree huggers.” The church has the biblical and theological resources to talk about the environment. Let’s use them.

Found Content

We're back with more Found Content (articles, video, etc) that caught our attention in recent days. Each one deserves more thought and comments, but I am writing less to write more.
  • Obituaries for 2009. Every year we have to say goodbye to people who have made a difference. Among those who made big headlines: Hans Beck who created Playmobil toys, Norman Bourlag who led the Green Revolution, and the artist Andrew Wyeth.
  • Worst. Decade. Ever. At least that is Reason TV's take on the political scene from 2000-2010.
  • How religious is your state? The Pew Forum has the results of a survey comparing each state in worship attendance, frequency of prayer, and belief in God.
  • Why is there such disparity between poor and rich countries? An Esquire article suggest that sound institutions--"the rule of law and security and a governing system which offers opportunities to achieve and innovate."
  • The pope's 2009 Christmas homily.
  • A Philadelphia Inquirer article about the Low Mass of the Dawn. For those looking for a quiet celebration of Christmas.
  • Jim Wallis of Sojourners discusses the spiritual implications of the current economic problems. He writes, "This could be a moment to reexamine the ways we measure success, do business and live our lives; a time to renew spiritual values and practices such as simplicity, patience, modesty, family, friendship, rest and Sabbath."

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sermon Background Noise, Matthew 2:1-12

Along with praying through the Scripture lesson, reviewing the original language, and reading the commentaries, I will often find information online which forms the background noise for a sermon.

This week’s sermon is based on the story of the wise men from Matthew 2:1-12.
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
  • This week's soundtrack includes J. S. Bach's Weihnachts Oratorium. You can find English texts here.

  • Several artists have painted the Adoration of the Magi. Although I hate to link Wikipedia, here is a description of Leonardo DaVinci's depiction.
  • John Calvin's commentaries on the text are here and here.
  • In "Off by Nine Miles", Walter Brueggemann writes in the Christian Century from December 2001 about the theological differences between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
  • Thoughts from Reformed Worship about the season of Epiphany.
  • Apparently, there is such a thing as an Epiphany cake. Hidden inside is almond paste or brioche dough. I prefer the chocolate in this recipe.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Friday Funnies: Twas 24 Hours Before Christmas

Jack Bauer made the naughty list this Christmas.